Yes, We're Rich, But Please Don't Remind Us

Which city of 100,000 or more population has the greatest concentration of million-dollar homes? Star-studded Los Angeles? Nope. Chicago and its famous Gold Coast? Nah. Swanky New York? Not even close.
August 2003
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Which city of 100,000 or more population has the greatest concentration of million-dollar homes? Star-studded Los Angeles? Nope. Chicago and its famous Gold Coast? Nah. Swanky New York? Not even close. It's brainy, politically correct Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River from Boston and home to Harvard University and MIT. According to a study by the Census Bureau, nearly 12 percent of owner-occupied, single-family houses in Cambridge were valued at $1 million or more in 2000. (Runners-up to Cambridge: San Francisco, with 7 percent of its homes valued at $1 million or more, Pasadena, California, with 4.7 percent, and Los Angeles with 3.8 percent.) So Cambridge residents are delighted with their distinction, right? Not exactly. "It's alarming for a variety of factors," said the mayor. "I knew we had high housing costs. I never stopped to think of us in comparison to other communities." Added a state senator, "Our popularity is killing us. It's killing the diversity that makes Cambridge unique." Problem is, being rich doesn't fit Cambridge's image of itself as an intellectually intense, politically liberal, mixed-income kind of place. Nor can residents understand their own popularity. "I'm not really sure why people want to live here," said one, who was interviewed by the Boston Globe. "I mean, Arlington and Watertown are nice, too."


Whatever misgivings Cambridge may have, the fact is every city wants to attract wealthy people. If they are young as well as wealthy, even better. And if they're young, wealthy and famous, why, let's roll out the red carpet. There is just such a group of people around, and they travel widely. They're baseball players, and they have opinions about the places they play in. We know this because Sports Illustrated recently polled major league players on a host of issues. Examples: Who is the greatest living player? (Barry Bonds.) Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame? (Yes.) The magazine also asked the players where they most enjoyed playing on the road. Top three most desirable places to play in: Chicago, New York and Seattle. The places they most disliked: Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. To make things worse for Detroit, it finished second on the most-disliked list even among National League players, who rarely set foot there. (Note to Detroit: Baseball players may not be the keenest observers around. Almost 2 percent of those polled picked Babe Ruth as the "greatest living player." Ruth died in 1948.)


What is the worst local government job in America? Lots of candidates, but here's a nominee: city planning director in a college town. Why would that be such a lousy job? Because college towns are full of high-IQ types who make their living by talking and offering opinions and have little regard for other professionals. That explains why Carol Barrett is leaving Berkeley, California, the college-town suburb on San Francisco's East Bay. Barrett came to the planning director's job there with impressive credentials: former president of the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association and author of a book on ethics for planners. Sounds like she would fit right in at brainy Berkeley. A year and a half later, she's fleeing back to Texas. Says Chip Johnson, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, the reason is that Berkeley's "vast array of activist-experts" made Barrett's life miserable. "The people she came in contact with, by phone and in person, often were zealous to the point of being irrational," Johnson writes. If she didn't give these people the answers they wanted, she was "personally maligned." Aren't people in Berkeley ashamed of the way they act? Nope. The publisher of the city's weekly paper proudly wrote that "putting up with that kind of intellectual critique has always been part of the job description for staffers in university towns, and it always will be." This explains why Berkeley is now looking for its fourth planning director in four years.


Atlanta recently broke ground on an aquarium. Sounds ho-hum--a slew of aquariums have been built in the past 20 years--but stick with this story. The Georgia Aquarium will be one of the largest around, with 5 million gallons of fresh and salt water and 500 species of animals and fish. It has an odd shape: It will look like a giant ark. Its promoters think it will attract 2 million visitors a year when it opens in 2005. Still not impressed? Get this: It's a gift from one person. Bernard Marcus, who founded Home Depot, the home-improvement chain, is paying the entire $200 million cost out of his pocket and even throwing in an endowment for operating costs. "When it opens," he said at the groundbreaking, "[the aquarium] will have no debt whatsoever [and] will have cash flow from the day it opens." It's a breathtaking act of generosity and apparently reflects Marcus' appreciation for the city that nurtured his company. Marcus is retired from Home Depot, but visitors will be reminded of the company in one way. The aquarium's mascot is a fish called Deepo.