Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Economist's Notebook: Western Cities

I spent the weekend at the American Economics Association annual meetings being held this year in San Diego. As has been the case for the last few years, I saw none of the actual conference because I spent the entire weekend in a hotel room interviewing candidates for two open positions in the department (not new - we had two departures from the department at the end of the academic year).  But it was my first time in San Diego and I did a fair amount of wandering the downtown, and though downtown is not really where you want to be when you go to San Diego, it was still quite interesting to me.

To me downtown San Diego felt just like downtown Denver from the new downtown baseball stadium to the historic district turned into a bar and restaurant spot, the broad avenues devoid of traffic to the distinct absence of residential hosing.  It felt nice and relaxed but a little bit marginal.  The Gaslamp district to me was a little bit scuzzy (more so than LoDo in Denver) but the revitalized waterfront was pretty nice (though mostly dominated by big hotels).  My take on these western ghost town downtowns in the west is quite different than the de-urbanization that happened in the east.

In places like Denver and San Diego I have this impression of early cities that were developing an urban core around stockyards and ports, respectively, when the automobile and the increased mobility of American society had a transformative effect.  Western cities have beautiful landscapes and the automobile allowed folks to live in more picturesque suburbs and close to the natural beauty that surrounded them (yes, Denver sits on a dry arid high plain by the mountain views are spectacular and thus folks spread out along the front range), perhaps despite the pleasant livable downtown areas rather than because of urban blight as in the eastern city.   Later, more and more folks moved to these cities by choice precisely because of the allure of the natural beauty and climate, and these folks were not looking for urban amenities as much as suburban space and nature.  Thus the massive sprawl took off.  In Denver it is vivid and impressive, and San Diego seems equally so.

It is only now that these downtowns are starting to infill residential and mixed use amenities in an effort to create more vibrant and lively spaces.  This process is slow.  I was very amused to see the San Diego Streetcar that circulates the downtown area as well as the number of new condo towers that I imagine sprung up in the early 2000s like they did everywhere including Portland.  The streetcar has become the darling of urban renewal (thanks in part to Portland) but I am not sure how strong an effect it has - it certainly has some.  [By the way, at $2.50 a ride I was not terribly surprised to see half full streetcars at best]

Back in Portland now but ready to go off to Brazil for 6 months - not sure how this will impact the blog exactly, but it has been hard to keep it up during this period.  I hope I can chime in on Oregon topics from afar and post occasionally about Brazil.

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