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The Rediscovery of Place

Despite all predictions, old-fashioned geographical community is making a comeback.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

A decade or so ago, having just written a book about the decline of community in America, I found myself giving speeches on the subject to audiences in different parts of the country. The reactions varied, but there was one thing I could always count on: Someone would rise during the question period and ask me about Internet communities. Aren't they the modern replacement for old-fashioned geographical community? Who needs street life when you can be in instant communication with a like-minded beekeeper or Bordeaux drinker anywhere in the world?

My answer was always simple and unyielding. Internet communities are a sham. They lack the permanence, commitment and even the reliability of face-to-face social interaction. Much of the time, you don't even know who the person on the other end is. The only genuine community, I kept repeating, was the kind where you can count on seeing your friends in person, week after week, year after year. Some audiences bought this; others didn't.

In the ensuing few years, my rigid view took something of a beating. Internet relationships, if not full-fledged communities, began to take on a more stable quality. I learned this in my own family. My daughter, who had terrific summer-camp experiences at ages 13 and 14, was still in regular communication with some of her camp friends six years later. I'm not saying those relationships will continue all through her life, but I do concede that they wouldn't have continued at all in the days before e-mail and instant messaging. The simple requirements of writing and sending a letter would have caused them to atrophy.

In the period that followed, communitarian writers much more influential than I began backtracking in roughly the same way. Robert Putnam, who warned of growing social alienation with his book "Bowling Alone," conceded a few years ago that Meetup, the Internet affinity network that generates eventual face-to-face contact among like-minded people, might actually be a legitimate means of recreating the urban gathering place and even partially repairing the frayed bonds of social life in present-day urban America. Putnam had begun to reconsider his ideas about the broader Internet community question.

Meanwhile, the news media began telling a growing number of stories about how electronic communication was severing the old ties of geographical community altogether. Frances Cairncross, a writer for The Economist, proclaimed "The Death of Distance," and predicted that in the near future, "common interests, experiences and pursuits will bind communities together." Place itself, at least in its classic form, was a concept of declining significance.

IN VIEW OF ALL THIS, I feel the need to be a little cautious in suggesting that as we approach the end of another decade, the pendulum may be starting to swing again. Distance didn't die. Place didn't die. In fact, in much of what you see and read these days, you begin to get the feeling that place -- the soil of old-fashioned geographical community -- is making a comeback.

First, a brief summary of some things that seem obvious on the ground: Two kinds of communities in this country have sounded increasingly agitated in recent years over their desire to create a feeling of rootedness they are convinced they lack. One consists of suburbs built in the 1960s and '70s around cars, cul-de-sacs and shopping malls, and missing any physical center at all in the traditional sense. The other hub of "place envy" lies in the big cities of the South and West that have been growing at prodigious rates -- Albuquerque, Charlotte, Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix, and many others.

Their civic leaders voice a common complaint that unless they can create at least the rudiments of a conventional downtown and an active street life, they will lose the fragile sense of identity they once had -- and may begin to lose ground in economic development to competitors that can lay a genuine claim to vibrancy and physical uniqueness. That is why all these cities have been spending billions of dollars on new transit systems and huge city-center mixed-use projects -- to reassure their visitors and themselves that there is a "there" there after all. You can call that a waste of money; you can call it belated common sense. But you also can chalk it up to a deepening emotional conviction that, in the 21st century, place really does matter after all.

The rediscovery of place has begun to attract its own cadre of writers and thinkers -- heirs, in a way, to the New Urbanism that sprouted up in the early 1990s. Richard Florida is perhaps the most conspicuous apostle of place these days. In his new book, "Who's Your City," he lays it all on the line: The "death of distance" was a mirage; the coming breakthroughs in business and technology will occur in densely populated urban areas; these urban clusters are the places where the coming generation of creative people will wish not only to work but to live. The world isn't "flat," Florida insists -- it's spiky, dotted with dense conurbations that attract the progenitors of modern knowledge and wealth. "The denser the connections among them," Florida writes, "the faster it all goes. It is the multiplier effect of the clustering force at work."

Florida is an easy writer for academics and planning professionals to dismiss. His prose is often overheated, oversimplified and a little patronizing to anyone with even a modest knowledge of the subject. But those annoyances tend to obscure the fact that Florida is on to something. Three decades ago, American cities were, with a few exceptions, in dreadful shape. Crime-ridden, fiscally fragile and hemorrhaging population, they showed every sign of being inefficient vestiges of the industrial era. In 1980, when David Stockman, the federal budget director, was asked what might be done to save Philadelphia, he is said to have responded that there might be no reason to save Philadelphia at all.

By 1988, as Florida recounts, the economist Robert Lucas was raising the question of why big cities had not, in fact, begun to disappear. Costs were far lower out in the suburbs. So why were people and businesses paying a large rent premium to stick around lower Manhattan or downtown Chicago? Lucas gave a concise answer: "To be around other people." That simple idea tended to get lost in the 1990s amid the genuine enthusiasm for the novelty of the Internet. Twenty years later, thanks to Florida and other writers, the insights of Lucas are being accepted as common sense.

The other prophet of place right now is the Texas journalist Bill Bishop. Over the past few years, Bishop has put forth and largely documented the notion that Americans are rearranging themselves geographically -- making a pronounced effort to live in close physical proximity to those with interests and political convictions similar to their own. Bishop is no cheerleader for this phenomenon: In his new book, "The Big Sort," he talks about the cultural dangers of growing local homogeneity at a time of increased national diversity, and points to a sense of hopelessness among less-affluent, less-educated Americans who lack the resources to move around.

Whether the consequences are favorable or not, Bishop believes that the evidence of a big sort is by now incontrovertible. He offers some numbers that are, while puzzling, difficult to refute.

Among the most compelling of them are these: In 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president, less than a quarter of the American people lived in so-called "landslide counties" -- those in which the spread between the two major presidential candidates was 20 percentage points or more. By 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected, nearly half the electorate lived in this kind of politically tilted territory.

At first glance, this might seem to be a rather narrow sort of revelation, meaningful to political candidates but not a significant comment on the larger American social scene. But the longer I ponder it, the more important it seems. How does one account for the landsliding of America? It has nothing to with electoral gerrymandering: Nobody redraws the lines of counties for political advantage. Nor does it seem to be a function of natural population growth; there has been relatively little of that in many parts of the country.

In the end, one is drawn pretty much by default to Bishop's idea: Landsliding has resulted from the ability and desire of educated and affluent Americans to cluster with their social, cultural and political soulmates. If Bishop is right, he has not merely identified a political truth -- he has said something important about American social life in the past generation.

Not only that, he has driven a stake through the more extreme "death of distance" theories that became popular in the 1990s. If the Internet really were eroding the significance of distance and place, people would not be going to great lengths to form new enclaves comprised of neighbors who think and act like them. They could live anywhere, next to anyone, and fashion their communities out of virtual cloth. But they do not seem to be doing that; they seem to be pursuing geographical communities at a rate that has few parallels in American history.

Place matters a lot -- in some ways, more than ever. Maybe I had it right the first time.

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