How Cities Sell Themselves to the Tech Industry
Paris Marx is joined by David A. Banks to discuss how cities have been reshaped to attract tech companies and what the consequences have been for the people who live in them.
David A. Banks is the author of The City Authentic: How the Attention Economy Builds Urban America. He’s a lecturer in the Geography and Planning department at University at Albany, SUNY. David also writers Other Day and co-hosts Iron Weeds. Follow David on Twitter at @DA_Banks.
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Paris Marx: David, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us!
David A. Banks: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.
PM: I am very excited to chat with you again because we’re talking about two topics that I love to talk about, technology and cities. This is a perfect episode for me. And of course, having you back on the show after a very long time, I’m not even going to do the math in my head, as to how long it’s been. But it was December 2020 last time, so it’s been a while and it’s about time we had you back on the show.
DB: Yeah, it’s like before for COVID shots.
PM: I guess, yeah, that would have been around that time.
DB: I’ve got 5G! You’ve got 5G!
PM: I’m just radiating it everywhere I go and people get mad at me, so many shots. But man, it’s great to have you back and it’s great to be able to talk about your new book “The City Authentic,” which I was very happy to say, my name is on the back there, gave me a little blurb. Very proud of that.
DB: I got the Paris Marx bump right there.
PM: I’m moving up in the world, man and so are you with your book. You’ll be blurbing books next — it’s how these things go. Here’s the thing, the book is fantastic. The book goes into a bunch of important history, but also gives us a really important insight into what is going on right now, in cities and how tech has served to reorient cities in the present. But also how technologies have helped to facilitate this process in the past. I want to start with a general question and then we’ll dig into some of this history and go through how this has progressed over time, because I think it’s fascinating to dig into. Obviously, the name of the book is “The City Authentic.” Now, what does it actually mean, to be authentic?
DB: Boy, when I try to answer that question in front of my students, I usually just ask them for examples, like things that they think are authentic. It will be stuff like a live band performance or your mom’s recipe for lasagna or whatever. Then I’ll ask: Well, let’s dig deep, what do these things have in common? And what it usually comes down to is that these are things that were made without your input, or like without you in mind because the band didn’t know you. Your mom made the lasagna before you were born. So these are just things that are out there that you discover, or that you encounter in some way, and they resonate with you in some way.
So if we look at the inverse of that — what is not authentic — it’s things that are contrived, specifically, to impress you. And that move to make something deliberately to attract you, usually reads as unauthentic, when it’s discovered that this was a contrivance in some way. So I usually describe this in my book in two terms. One is predictably unique. A predictably unique thing is where it’s just like a riff on a common topic. Like, you go to every city and there’s a coffee shop that makes a pun on the word grind or drip or something. Or different cities now have starting to have apparel that they sell in different stores.
PM: Building off the, “I ❤ NY,” trend and everyone needs to do their own.
DB: Yeah, or, “Keep Austin Weird.” I was in Denver last month and I would go into the gift shops for research.
PM: Yeah, just for research. We get it.
DB: For research purposes! They would have all these shirts, I would say: “Mile High in Denver” because they’ve had weed legal there since 2014, or something. I bought one and actually wore it. I put it on, during my academic conference presentation, I was like: This is important. And it was dead silence. I don’t know, academics have no sense of humor. It was like a dyed “Mile High in Denver” shirt and I just put it over a suit and tie. And I got nothing. But authenticity, walks this fine line between things that you didn’t know you wanted, and then you find them and you’re like: Oh, wow, this is something that I found that didn’t even consider me when it was created; that means it’s authentic, because it has an origin somewhere.
The urban sociologist, Sharon Zukin, who if I am sitting on the shoulders of giants, she’s definitely one of the big shoulders that I’m sitting on. She argues that cities are actually a bad place to find authenticity, because they change so much. So if you’re looking for a place that is going to have something old in it, the city isn’t really a great candidate for that. But cities are usually considered places to find authenticity, because they at least, probably in the last like 20 years or so, peddle in the experience of origins — the experience that you are finding something that is old, or the first to x, y, z.
That’s what authenticity is today. It’s focused around experiences, and whether or not the experience that you’re having connects to your expectations of what an experience should be, and how it resolves because of some similar identity, construction issues that you have for yourself. But the idea is that as a modern subject, all of us are walking around, trying to create the story for ourselves that creates our identity. When we find stuff that resonates with us that we like, we try to rein that into be part of our identity. Everyone selling stuff knows that and tries to to be that. The second thing that I use to talk about authenticity is called “the thirst games,” which there’s what I describe as mostly cities, but also all the attendant organizations that have knit cities together and regional capacities. Maybe we’ll get into that later. But like industrial development authorities, business improvement districts, they’re all competing for your attention also.
Instead of “The Hunger Games,” because, I put in a lot of pop culture references, I need to tamp it down a little bit and maybe you’ll make something a little original here, something authentic. When I say thirst games, I am talking about a ruthless competition, but instead of hunger, thirst is one, you have it more often. You can’t go pretty long without water, but also I’m tongue in cheek evoking the idea of liquidity and of what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity, where the most powerful actors in a modern society are ones that are able to shift and move and change quickly with the times, while also being able to get into places of power and then repel people and organizations that they don’t want to be around them, or they see as threats. So all of those things coming together is what I’m referencing, when I say the thirst games, which is also a big part of authenticity.
PM: I love this notion of the thirst games and the competition between these cities. We’re going to come back to some of these business improvement districts and things like that, that you’re talking about. But I want to return to what you said about Sharon Zukin, saying that a city is not somewhere that you go for authenticity, necessarily, because so much gets replaced and bulldozed over. I feel like that’s especially the case in the North American city, but of course, in many others as well. Where we’ve seen, you know, so much get destroyed and built over in order to make way for the automobile. This is a process that goes back even further than that. While the book is called “The City Authentic,” and this is a concept that you’re referring to, and laying out, in terms of what has been happening more recently. You also refer to the past and previous movements of The City Beautiful and The City-Efficient, eras that came before the one that we’re in now. Do you want to give us a brief description of those two periods, and what you think really defined them?
DB: Absolutely. The City Beautiful movement, which is probably what most people have heard of if you took an American history, of course in high school or college. There was usually a paragraph that says something about The City Beautiful movement. Basically, all you need to know about that is that once the frontier closed in the United States, that’s when all the eastern capital had to find new places to be invested in because we had slaughtered a great deal of Native people and taken their land. Well, now it’s like: Let’s retrench those gains and put them into cities, because the material wealth is still coming out of these newly conquered territories, and we need to put it somewhere, otherwise, it’ll lose value. If you keep taking gold out of the ground, or oil or something, but you’re not reinvesting it, then the supply increases and the value of it goes down.
So The City Beautiful movement was an attempt to build a bunch of very expensive things in a lot of cities — to do, one, what’s called a spatial fix, which is what I just described, where you build a big thing and spend a lot of money in it to keep the value of commodities up, and the value of money itself up. But it also was a signal to other rich people that they should start investing, too. So if you get like a Carnegie Library — or, I don’t know, some a Rockefeller-funded museum or concert hall — that’s a signal to the second-tier rich people that: Okay, this is a safe place to invest. It’s going to stand around for a while because the Rockefellers and Carnegies are invested in this place too. Of course, because these people want to live forever.
PM: Just takes a different form today where they literally are going to do it.
DB: In this case, they just plaster their name on to things. It won’t be good enough if these are private things because then no one’s talking about it. So they plaster their name on these gigantic buildings that are usually very public facing, because it also this is a time where rich people aren’t very popular. They’re also trying to give back in ways that make them seem a little less evil.
PM: The Bill Gates of the earlier era, basically,
DB: The City Beautiful movement was about building really big, honestly, beautiful things, usually where poor people lived. You bulldoze them And then you say: I love the people, like except those that were right in this place right here. That is historically put between Haussmann’s Paris and Hitler’s Berlin. Those are both, obviously, European cities, but a ton of it happened in North America, because that’s where all the money was sloshing around at the time. And then the City Efficient — this is a less used term. There’s several other candidates for names for this period. I use city efficient, because it’s very convenient to say City Beautiful, City Efficient, City Authentic, obviously. So that’s why I picked this one.
This is where code becomes really popular, both in the Lessig sense — like code, as in computer code — but also law, zoning codes. And this is where you start talking about units to the acre, your engineering things to national or regional specifications — all in effort to make things more efficient. This is not just for helping people get places faster or easier. But it’s also making it easier to invest in places by making them standardized. The car, obviously, gets popular and transforms cities around it, and of course, when you’re using a very sophisticated technology, like a car, to get around, it needs specificity and rationalization in order for it to work. Because if you have cities with roads of all kinds of different widths, in some places, you go on the left side, and some places go on the right side. That won’t work.
So you have to have rationalization and efficiency in order to have these enormous technical systems to work correctly. So that’s the City Efficient. I should say this is also when cities — I should talk a little bit about law and code — this is also where cities are hiring actual city planners, as a profession. This is when my field of urban planning, start seeing itself at the level of lawyer, doctor, engineer, is planner. And this is really crucial to, not only the profession, but it’s also when a profession forms; it’s also creating its own market. So it’s saying: Cities have to be planned. If they’re not planned, there’ll be chaos.
PM: I think it’s fascinating to hear you periodize it in that way. But also to think about the technologies that were involved in those periods. If you’re thinking about The City Beautiful, and the need to build these big architectural projects — internal combustion engines and steam power and things like that — that are necessary in order to move all these goods and materials to make this possible. Then you move into the City Efficient era where now the automobile, the automotive city is taking over, and you’re rebuilding things around the image of the automobile. Certainly, that is what we see in North America and in many other cities through that period — where many parts of the city are being leveled, to make way for the development that is being done in order to remake things for the automobile; to encourage people to be using the automobile to get around.
Of course, I think we also see a bit more of the city becomes more bland because of the way that things are built, because we have these cookie cutter, big box stores and all this stuff that’s being built. So this is what this period looks like. Obviously, with talking about that you get us up to the later part of the 1900s, around the 1990s, with all of that. So what are the challenges that cities are starting to face at the end of this City Efficient period, that starts to make the conditions for a new mode, or a new era to emerge, as you start to talk about The City Authentic?
DB: Cities have these interesting set of problems. On the one hand, crime is down in North America and Europe in never before seen ways. Crime is at historic lows, but they also don’t have any money. Industry has left most North American cities and a lot of European ones, and they’re not coming back. They’re not interested and that was how cities did grow is that they would do smokestack-chasing, but the smokestacks aren’t listening.
PM: We’re sending those all to China at this point.
DB: Yes! Those all go to China and Mexico, South America, the labor is too cheap and so they’re not listening. What labor is not cheap, that does stick around, and it’s in these creative-class kind of fields. So the white collar industries basically. And here, this is where the geographer Jamie Peck describes this as the perfect lacuna or open space where all these city officials are like: Well, we don’t have any other playbook. And so in Waltz’s Richard Florida in 2002, with “The Rise of the Creative Class,” and he’s like: Here’s the new playbook, literally; the book that I wrote is the playbook. What you want to attract is what he calls the three T’s: talent, technology and tolerance.
So tolerance being — this is very dated to 2023 years — but he’s talking about a gay index, because he recognizes that cities that have a large LGBTQ population seem to be doing pretty well. This is also a time where if it’s a dual-earner household that doesn’t have any kids — they have ton of expendable income and they are still these very well-defined districts that LGBTQ people coalesce around, and they seem to be doing really well. So he’s like: Oh, you need those. And they also all seem to be in these designerly kind of professions. It’s pretty essentialist reading from what we can see at the time, but he’s working with whatever you can find in the late 90s.
PM: Also probably, a specific subset of the LGBTQ community that he’s interested in, right?
DB: It’s going back and forth. It was like: Well, of course, I didn’t find the trans person that got kicked out of their family’s house and lives in Mobile, Alabama. That person’s not on his radar because he’s not looking for them. Technologies — obviously, these upcoming Silicon Valley companies — he sees that. Then tolerance for all of it is super important. The talent is being able to do these white-collar jobs. So the answer then is: Well, just keep these people happy. Because creativity is the new oil or whatever. This is the new source of value-creation, and because these people tend to flit around to different employers, or they’re self employed, they can work anywhere. The job of cities is to be the fun weekend dad, as I describe it. Like, you don’t have to make any rough choices — just be fun. If you can create this atmosphere where people want to live, and make small investments and create enticements for fun things to show up, then you’ll just create this culture and economy, or ecology even, of creativity, that spurs innovation.
PM: I think this is really important because this is a moment, as you’re saying, cities are kind of stuck. They’re looking for what is going to be the next thing to drive them forward to create a new wave of prosperity, wealth, creation, all this sort of stuff. And Richard Florida enters with this playbook — Richard Florida, of course, has blocked me on Twitter, he’s not a particular fan because I’ve criticized him — so he kind of enters with this playbook. Like this is what you can do in order to revive the economy. His playbook is basically like: Look at all these people in “creative professions.” Really, what he means is people earning higher than average incomes.
Basically, he’s saying: US cities need to go out, and you need to take actions and implement policies that are going to attract these specific people. You need to be looking for them; you need to be orienting your whole approach toward attracting these people, toward making these people happy. So what is the ultimate effect of doing that? Because this is a moment where, obviously, a lot of cities are trying to attract tech industries, because that’s a big part of the creative economy and the tech industry is really taking off in this moment. So what is the effect of having all of these cities chasing after these particular type of workers, this particular class of workers?
DB: This is actually interesting, because we are talking about the 90s in the early 2000s. The culture picks up on this inevitability of the way things are going in the 80s, and you see it in movies, tarting with “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The neighbors, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and I don’t know the dude’s name, but they’re just these yuppie people that you’re supposed to hate. But you see them as these people out of place, like they should be in a city. They look like they should be in a city but they’re not. They’re in this suburb living next to Chevy Chase, like there’s something’s wrong here. hen in ‘86, David Byrne makes this movie that I love and pretty much everyone else I talked to hates called “True Stories. “Where he’s describing this exact problem of cities not being able to retain talent. I think it’s actually setting the movie: People don’t realize if they’re working or not working, and they just do things because they enjoy it. What the hell do you do to these people? What do they want?
Then, probably, the best description of it is Beetlejuice, that movie Beetlejuice. Where the Deetz’s show up to a small Connecticut town because the dad has nerves or something and he needs to calm down. But they reproduce themselves. It’s constantly what this class does, or what the sector of the population, does. They can’t help but, in a magpie fashion, collect culture and sell it because, of course it’s perfect, the dad is a real-estate agent, and the mom is an artist. Those two things are constantly coming together to create value. Their first idea is like: Oh, this Connecticut town is so quaint and nice, and I like it. If it could just be tweaked a little bit, to be a little bit more like amenable to the tastes of city people. We could just take over this entire town and turn it into what today would be an Airbnb utopia of some kind. That’s their first their first move.
Then they find out that their house is haunted. And then they say, pretty much like: Oh, this is even more specific. You can’t find this anywhere else. This is a competitive advantage, or comparative advantage that no one else can really have. This is the essential component of the city authentic. Which is that here’s the thing that cannot be exported or removed, because it is directly tied to this geography, this place, in space and time. This thing happened — whatever way we can get people to spend money to experience it, to experience that origin — and that’s our economy now. Even better if people that make a lot of money doing designerly, creative things like it and will spend all of their walking-around money on this sort of thing. Any sort of thing in the past, or some sort of geographic feature, that is amenable to expendable income is great. This is why you get bars, when I described in my book, that name themselves after past tenants of the building. There’s a wine bar that opens up in my town of Troy. That’s called the Confectionery, which is confusing. It’s a wine bar named after a candy store. But it’s because a candy store used to be there in the 1800s.
PM: They’re not making candy-themed or candy-flavored wines or anything for you?
DB: Because it can’t be that creative. What you want to do is, take history, freeze it in amber, and then sell it back to people. If they picked a little tenant right before the bar, it would have been insurance themed. That’s not something that people want to spend money on, willingly.
PM: Let’s go to the insurance bar. Sounds great!
PM: I think that you make a really important point there that I wanted to pick up on and talk a bit about. Because to condense a short history here for people to understand, who aren’t really into urban geography and these sorts of fields. Basically, what we see in a lot of cities, especially culture oriented ones, is that you have a lot of industrial places leave, then you have artists move into these former industrial areas. You have the loft boom, so they’re looking for cheap places to live. Then the finance people — people who want to be cool — follow after them and gentrify these areas. These places get redone, then they start to get more expensive.
We have seen this process through many large cities where real estate prices, where neighborhoods have been updated, have been gentrified, and prices have gone through the roof over the past number of decades, basically.There’s something really important that you talk about in your book, where when we had cities whose economic basis were more dependent on industrial work, there was a desire to keep property prices and housing prices low. But as we shift to this focus on the creative class,, so to speak, and the focus on finance industry, that desire goes away. Do you want to talk to us a bit about that, and how that proceeds? Why that desire to keep housing prices low goes away and what that means for people who actually live in cities?
DB: The industries that made things and commodities, they made their money off of selling the commodity. It was a cost to own land and employ people, and you wanted to keep the cost of living low, because then you could pay lower wages. You wanted land prices low, one, because that would influence the cost of living, but also because if you ever expanded your factory you’re paying more in land prices because the factory takes up a lot of land. You also don’t want a ton competition for other uses of land. You don’t want your factory getting surrounded by apartments or other factories or something. You want to be the big guy, the big fish in the small pond. This is why my region in upstate New York is just dotted with cities that never really got beyond 100,000 people, was because this was a nice little sweet spot for that sort of economy.
But when you replace industry that makes things, with the FIRE industry — with finance, insurance and real estate — they make their money off of infinite financial growth. And so they want everything to get as expensive as possible, that’s how they make their money. When you also put Fintech in there, financial technology firms and the growing property in real estate technology stuff, like Zillow, and a ton of other things that you’ve never heard of, that do a lot of back-end work. They also wants this infinite growth model because, one, they work on monopoly logic, which is that they need to be the only, or one of only a handful of, companies that do whatever it is that they do. Because everything that they do only works at enormous scales. If they’re a regional competitor in something, it’s not going to make any money.
So technology and the FIRE industry, together, are really, really focused on just making things as expensive as possible, because that’s the only way that they can make money. All the things that they do are taking a percentage off of real value creation. The stuff that people actually do to make a living — there’s always the middleman on it, or they’re trading on it, or they’re speculating on it. As everything gets more expensive, their little percentage gets higher, or the actual dollar value of that percentage, gets bigger. And so that’s the material change when you go from industry that makes things to an industry that usually just kind of speculates.
PM: I think that’s really important to understand, especially when we look back at the impact of the creative class theory, and having all of these cities running after this particular industry, trying to attract these particular industries to their cities, having all of these workers and what it actually means for people who live in cities, especially at a time where cities are trying to attract more people back to them, to keep a vibrant economy going. In the book, and I know you’ve written a review of it in the past, Richard Florida wrote a bit of a mea culpa sort of a book in 2017-18, to say: This has really not worked out. What have we seen as being the impact of this focus on the creative class, and running after the tech industry and the FIRE industry, and remaking our cities in this way?
DB: That book, “The New Urban Crisis,” I don’t think Florida’s written a book since then. I think he’s still trying to figure out what his thing is now. Even he can’t ignore the fact that this thing that he kept saying people should do, isn’t working. And it’s also just a fascinating book because it comes out and 2017, and it is so so clear — especially from like the last chapter — that he was supposed to be our HUD secretary under Hillary Clinton, or something involved. His star was supposed to rise with a Hillary Clinton presidency in some way and that didn’t pan out. So he’s like: Well, I guess I’ll just finish this book and figure out what to do.
But the issue there — and this is something that he acknowledges, so I’m what I’m about to say comes mostly from that book — is that cities retrench their wins and make it impossible for new cities, or down-and-out cities in the Rust Belt that want to revitalize, can’t compete with a New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or even Atlanta and Orlando. Because they retrenched their earlier wins with what are called agglomeration benefits. For example, Atlanta had the film industry, like in, I think, it was like the late 90s, they started making it really cheap to film there. Then that grew and grew and grew to the point that now, around by me, we’re trying to get prestige television to always film by us. So “Succession” and “The Gilded Age” were both filmed around the Albany area. That was the direct effort of revitalization work, they picked that because if you want to do a period piece on 18th century New York City, we’re much cheaper to film in than actual New York City. So they’ll do stuff like that.
But once you get some wins, you can’t reach them anymore. What ends up happening is you have this massive inequality, both within cities, but also between cities, and there’s just no catching up. A lot of that has to do with the fact that if your economy is supposed to be built on having a fun place to live where creatives get to have these adult playgrounds, then of course, there’s only going to be a couple places. Is it even comparable to say New York City nightlife is anything like Albany, New York nightlife? It doesn’t make any sense. I’ll just end by saying, what Albany and areas like it, these smaller cities, what they try to do is position themselves as these unique thrift store finds to the brand name of the bigger cities. And that’s the best that we can come up with. Of course, if you have money, you can just spend it on the thing that everyone knows exists. But if you want like the real jewel in the rough kind of thing, then you come up here, and you can find what we’ll say is fairly similar experiences, this experience of urban origins at a deep discount.
PM: It’s so fascinating. You think about this narrative that we’ve been hearing for a while now, that a lot of the economic activity has moved to the coast in the United States, to the large cities, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. And you can see that that is exactly what has happened because for these industries, they need to be close to all of these other industries that they’re connected to, to these other companies that they’re connected to. It’s much more difficult for smaller cities to ever catch up or become the next tech hub or whatever, regardless of the number of tax incentives and whatever that they offer to these major companie. Maybe they’ll get a data center or something like that. But that’s not the same as having a bunch of tech workers actually doing that higher value work.
So your book focuses a lot, not on the large cities like New York City, but as you say, these smaller cities that are trying to attract people, that are trying to attract tech workers, that are trying to attract the creative class in many senses. And so how does that actually work? How do they try to bring these people in? and how do they use — obviously, the book is called “The City Authentic” — how do they use the technologies that are pushing authenticity at us? The technologies through which, us as kind of individuals or influencers try to position themselves as authentic for people who are watching, ow do cities do this same sort of thing?
DB: One thing that surprised me is that a lot of cities recognize that competition amongst them is starting to become an obstacle. For the longest time, the inter-city competition was just default competition equals capitalism equals good. But completely uncritically thinking that: Well, when we all compete, we all become the best of ourselves. But that’s not panning out at all because you have these obvious winners that just keep increasing their gains and their lead in front of others. And so what’s interesting is that everyone that I spoke to on this did not want to be on the record saying that this is what they clearly needed to do. Because a lot of places, especially like small cities and towns, don’t want to be incorporated into a larger city for reasons that range from hometown pride to unfounded assumptions that crime will go up once your trash is picked up by a different municipal authority. Somehow that turns into a crime going up or whatever. There’s a lot of magical thinking around that kind of stuff.
So one thing is that cities have to like, at least administratively, consolidate and get bigger. Or at the very least, when they make their pitches to the public, to say: Move here or visit here as a tourist. Or to potential employers or move a factory or an office here, they have to make the pitch as a region, not as individual cities. One way they’re doing that is, one, you have to create an organization that works at that level. And so in New York, we have what are called Regional Economic Development Councils. These are the ones that Andrew Cuomo, the former esteemed governor set up. There was recognition that: New York City, if you put that against Syracuse, or Albany or Buffalo, New York City wins every time for whether or not Facebook is going to put a headquarters there or something. So what they do instead is they have competitions within these 10 different regions, and so New York City is never competing with something else, or if they do compete, and they sometimes do, the competition is designed as such that the things that make New York City, New York City are handicapped, so to speak, in the way of a golf handicap kind of thing.
So what ends up happening there is that you get these really intense thirst games within the regions. In the capital region of upstate New York, you’ll have different cities competing for between low six figure, around there, low interest loans, grants and other kinds of incentives, to build things and to transform old industries into new ones clear brownfield sites to put on new clean tech, stuff like that. Usually, these economic development councils — which are composed of Governor appointed representatives, that are usually already the gentry of that region, the high executives or owners of big employers — they usually are the ones that are on these councils.
They will release reports that say: This is our vision for the region. And then it is up to everyone that wants their money to say: Here’s how what I want to do fits that vision. That’s how these organizations talk to each other, in order to create economic growth. Some of it is better than what it could be, just kind of like smoky back rooms where people are slapping backs and making deals. Now, all the slapping backs and making deals have minutes and are publicly announced. But in general, this rationalized system where you get points, and those points are reported — that’s what they started doing.
PM: One of the things that stood out to me, while you were describing that in the book was just how necessary a whole ton of consultants are for all of these smaller cities who compete in this. And it made me think I was talking to a couple of months ago to Rosie Collington and she has a new book out about the consulting industry. You just think about how these companies can make so much money going around to all these cities and selling them similar plans, or even just cities having to hire local consultants to come in and write these proposals for money and projects they might never get funded to do.
DB: I’ve done it before. I’ve been one of those consultants, and it’s ridiculous. A couple episodes ago, you had Kate Wagner on. I was listening to that in the Moynihan Train Hall, which is a very interesting experience. You can already see parts of it falling apart, already. Like the Amtrak sign is blinking and stuff, you’re just like: This is amazing. What Kate was talking about, where architects have started to adopt the tech big idea rhetoric, like the TED Talk style thing, where it’s like: This building is going to revolutionize humans relationship to the horizon, or just say some wacky stuff like that. And that’s totally the case, not only in architecture, but also an economic development, where they just have to say: Everything is the next iPhone; we are going to revolutionize the way that Albany connects to the global economy by making a new wing on the Community College [laughs].
DB: Just say you need a new wing on the community college! I don’t know — calm down. But they need to hit the soaring rhetoric, because otherwise it gets lost. People just stop paying attention. And because that is the language of power now, is to say that every single thing changes the world forever. It has to have this, again, this authenticity component to it, where you say: Not only will change everything forever, but it could only happen here. Like, this is the perfect place for this thing to happen because we have always been known as the place that does x,y , z. Just to give a brief example, around here, we’ve always had a bunch of apple orchards and some of them are very old and continually operating, but commodity prices being what they are, the apple business isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. You’re competing with a global economy of apples where like, you get red delicious apples coming from Argentina or whatever.
So like, what else do you do? You have to go up the value chain to more finished products. And so apple orchards will go to these Regional Economic Development Councils and say: We need $600,000 to turn us into a cidery or some other apple-derived product facility, and here’s how doing that reshapes the entire region into this new kind of economy. One is like that, but then also, actual high tech sectors like we have a chip FAB up here from GlobalFoundries. I think it’s a United Arab Emirates owned company, and then we’re also building a port on the Hudson. This is where the Hudson stops being a seafaring ships can only go up to basically Troy where I live. That’s why Troy exists in the first place.
So there’s a port in Albany, that’s supposed to do a lot of wind farm stuff. So you take huge pieces of these windmill machines, and you’ll put them on barges and send them down the Hudson. All of these sorts of ideas, while just fine on their own, are always couched in like: We have always done this, this is in our blood and in the soil! It comes really close to blood and soil kind of rhetoric. Where it’s like: We have to do this sort of stuff here, just magically, this is where this kind of stuff happens. So, even even the most like hard nosed tech stuff gets this tinge of magic dust, that it has to happen here or something.
PM: This is part of our legacy though, that we need to continue because this is what we do. One of the things that I find fascinating is to think about how this trajectory has developed over time. As you say, you have the smaller cities that are trying to attract industries that have already been rooted in the larger metropolises. And they’re trying to cash in on some of that wealth to try to attract some of that. Obviously – I was thinking, as I was reading your book — about things that are happening locally, here in Newfoundland, where I am on the east coast of Canada. It’s not a very big place, but you still see these similar discourses. I’m thinking, if you look back at the creative class, and part of the promise was like: You need to do things that are going to attract these type of people.
Even if the real estate soared, and even if a lot of things got worse, and inequality got worse, at least you got some better buses, and things like that. But it feels like now you don’t even get that. You see these governments doing tax credits for tech companies, and tax credits for film companies to try to attract these sorts of industries to the area. But it feels like there’s not the consideration of what you actually do to improve society for most of the people who live in it. It’s just: How do I attract these industries in these types of jobs that are the industries that are making a lot of money in the current economy? And the other part of that I think relates to something that was happening during the pandemic, where we did see a lot of people, or looked like a lot of people, were leaving cities and going to less expensive areas.
Again, Atlantic Canada, up here on the east coast is one of those places that were very behind, kind of sluggish economically. And all of a sudden, you had an influx of people from places like Toronto, where the real estate is really high. Then the real estate prices started to soar here as well and the people who lived here couldn’t afford the new prices as everything shot up and their jobs weren’t making the big tech salaries and stuff with the remote workers who were moving in. So I think that’s a big comment, but I wonder how you think about that development and what you’ve been seeing in the past few years as these things have continued and as they’ve also changed as the conditions have changed?
DB: So big cities are, I think, always going to exist as long as we can maintain complex civilization. Let’s say that.
PM: And I would hope we’re going to be able to maintain complex civilization for quite a while [laughs].
DB: I’m also team complex civilization. All of these smaller cities and towns, like there are waves. The big cities disgorge people for any number of reasons, and pandemic is a good one. But what I saw in upstate New York was that even though Hudson, New York — which is just south of me, a little less than an hour south of Albany — was the largest recipient of New York City people. The most New York City people went in and around Hudson. Even then the number of people that went there is disproportionate to the rent increases, the land value increases. Part of it is who moved — it was fairly well off people that could afford to move, but also people who had so much wealth that I heard from several real estate agents that this is basically what happened when people would go like: Does it have high speed internet access? They’re like: Yes! And so they were like: I will take it for $50,000 over asking, without seeing it. It was just because they felt: I need to get out of here away from the plebes, that are all disease vectors to me, and I will just use all these services to bring food and information to me.
PM: Right, internet gig economy services and stuff like that.
DB: So that’s the tech angle here. Is that all of these neo-feudal systems where you tap on a phone and some poor person has to go grocery shopping for you. That enabled a lot of people to very confidently say: Oh, I can just leave the city, go buy some sort of old shack — or nicer suburban thing — that at the time probably cost $180k, maybe low, two hundreds, kind of place. And then they all did that, and everything jumped up in price like crazy. I’m fortunate enough to own my home, mostly because I lived here before the pandemic, where I have a three bedroom house that I pay less on my mortgage, and then I would in rent, which is why we did in the first place. It actually was cheaper if you could amass a little bit of money to get the downpayment — it was cheaper.
But now that’s not necessarily true anymore, where the value of my house more than doubled over the pandemic, and they haven’t really gone down. Because, one, if housing prices go down, a lot of stuff falls apart. So everyone in that arena is invested in, literally and figuratively, in keeping prices from never going back down. There’s this ratchet effect where they just keep going up and up and up. But then there’s also these really interesting situations where you’re like: Okay, well, now that you move up here, and you maybe get some groceries. But you’ve lived in Manhattan, almost your whole life, or at least like your adult life. And now you live in a place that snows a lot, and you have a 500 foot driveway, leading to a country road. You need to find out how to plow it. And who takes away your garbage? And your furnace runs on oil. If someone needs to show up and fill it with oil again, and you’re not hooked up to the city sewer or anything. Like there’s all these new things that you have to deal with.
And so what some people were doing was going on Next Door or on these Facebook groups to ask for recommendations for different sorts of services to get this done. And what they would often find is very, very angry people like: Get out gentrifier. They correctly recognize this as rural gentrification. They’re like: Get the fuck out. I’m not going to tell you where I get my oil because they’ll jack up the price on me. Which is correct. It’s like: No, I’m not going to help you do this here.
PM: No way!
DB: It was it was a total revolt to the point that this real estate agent — it’s in the book, Megan White — they created their own app. They had to create a walled garden of their own, called Upstate Curious, where they had to be able to have their clients talk to each other in the same way that a city would naturally let you talk to each other because you’re physically proximate. They had to recreate that in a rural setting through the phone, just so that they could talk at all and share something because most people just didn’t want to talk to them, period. And they would get some pretty serious harassment thrown their way. But now she’s also going into commercial real estate, because, obviously, now a lot of these people want to stay here, but they want the wood-fired pizza and a nice hairstylist. They want all these urban amenities in the country, but you can’t do the serendipitous: Oh, I got off at a different train station today and found this new place. Now they’re also like trying to knit together these networks of affluence in the countryside, mostly through social media, which is fascinating to watch.
PM: That is absolutely wild. It also shows another means of the wealthy, in this particular class, carving themselves out from everyone else, but in this more digital way. You can’t even use the app that everyone else is using because they hate you, so you have your own app with your own selection of services that you can access or tell you where to go, and all this stuff with your own specific community. That’s wild. Before we start to close off our conversation, I wanted to ask you how this plays out on social media as well? Because you not only have cities promoting themselves on social media, or the organizations that run the downtown’s and want you around those areas and shopping in those areas, in particular. But also particular developments that want you to care about whatever it is their housing development, or their business or what have you. How does this of branding effort then play out on social media as this is one vector for the authenticity, and the attempt to sell authenticity to attract people to a particular city?
DB: This gets really interesting because everything we’ve talked about so far involves the person in the community, or the organization, claiming how unique the place is. It’s predictably unique; it’s authentic. It’s one of a kind. But once you start looking at people who already live here, or have lived here their entire life, and they want to talk about that experience through the lingua franca of the internet, like memes and stuff like that, you actually get them talking in terms of mass produced culture and objects. So I speak to one person who wanted to remain pseudonymous so I got to make up a name for them, which I absolutely love making up names! Elroy McDaniels is the name I gave this person.
PM: You’re good at making up the names. I like it.
DB: I love making up names. I wish more people wanted to remain pseudonymou in the book. That was the only one I got to do! But he runs this Instagram account called “Upstate NY memes,” and it’s just stuff like the starter pack meme, which is kind of played out by now, but at the time was a fairly popular. Where it’s just a collection of things, and then you label it the X starter pack. So if it was the Tech Won’t Save Us starter pack, it would be your book and it would be “thinking thoughtfully about technology,” and a podcast app.
PM: People get mad at Elon Musk.
DB: Right, and so I was looking at these starter packs for cities and towns around here — places that nobody has heard of, if you’re not from around here — like Loudonville. Well, now people know Clifton Park because that’s where Keith Raniere had his dungeon for NXIVM, which was around here. So sometimes people know Clifton Park. I asked him: So what makes Guilderland, New York the place that it is? And he’ll talk about: Oh, my dad drives a BMW and we have the largest Walmart in the world, which is actually true. The biggest Walmart in the world is up that by me, I don’t know why. And of course, the argument here is that this has to be widely understandable through consumerism. It’s this flip where actually, this place is like all other places and the differences are in these minor consumption habits because everyone can think of the person that drives a BMW or always has a Hydroflask on them or wears Uggs.
Because there’s a lot of this is high schoolers talking to each other it can get mean and catty. But it’d be like: Backpack SoundCloud rapper and pregnancy tests. Or this high school and this other high school is Land Rovers and Chanel or something. I was also surprised to find out that there’s almost no literature on this, or at least, nothing that I could find it, but this happens everywhere. Because Elroy, who I was talking to, did this because he had a lot of friends on Long Island, and Long Island, much like Southern California, has a bunch of little municipalities that are almost indistinguishable from each other if you aren’t from the place.
But everyone has very, very specific opinions about those different places and because they’re kind of indistinguishable on their face, to describe their differences has to be, one, this narcissism of small differences, but also through little consumptive habits that are very clear to people of what makes them different. So this happens all over the place. I remember BuzzFeed, RIP, doing a “You know you grew up in Miramar, Florida when (which is where I grew up).” And it’s just a list of 30 things that made sense to me, but wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. It included: Did you know Johnny Depp went to Miramar High School? It was stuff like that. It’s just very fascinating that once you actually get into the community, the authenticity talk is completely gone and it’s replaced by its exact opposite, and that it’s so useful that real estate agents buy posts on this guy’s account to sell their house.
PM: Of course. I think it’s so fascinating to see how those things develop, and to see the ways that social media is used in order to forward these broader trends that are happening. In this conversation, you’ve given us so much to think about, not only how these cities and how these trends have progressed through history, but also how the tech industry and the growth of the tech industry and its’ influences on cities have shaped a lot of that development over the past couple of decades. I’m wondering, to close off our conversation, how do you see these things continuing in this moment and into the future? How do you see capital and technology continuing to remake our cities, in order for them to further profit off of what is happening in them?
DB: When I talked about this book in front of fellow geographers or stuff like that, they usually say: This has always been like this. Cities have always advertised themselve and they’ve always been obsessed with growth and all that stuff. And that’s true, so what’s different is, one, how far cities can reach and how they can reach specific kinds of people or companies. One way that this is trending is now that influencers are just part of a PR budget. They’re not just some weird idea, they’re pretty mainstream idea for how to market anything. Cities have started going to those placement ad firms that just exist and be like: I want to buy an influencer for an afternoon, and we’ll fly them out to whatever client city and they just do their thing, in our city, and then that will make our city seem cool.
And of course, you pick the influencer for the kind of people you want there. If it’s Youngstown, Ohio, and it’s an aging population, and you get some young zoomer to go there and be like: Well, actually, Youngstown is pretty rad, or whatever. In the Hudson area you had Alison Roman, the foodie, cookbook author talking about the area a lot. Then she actually invested in three different restaurants in the area. The other thing is just that, and this is a much darker side of this, is that because there are now all of these platforms that allow private capital and really large companies to command a really big portfolio of real estate. They can now manipulate everything from the original asking price of homes to like the interior decoration of homes, all these different things. And can be commanded from like faraway places and can be deployed in ways that are most advantageous to them. Usually, it’s a zero sum game disadvantages to the locals.
We’re now seeing industries that used to be only regional, like real estate development and commercial leasing and residential landlords. This is becoming national, international businesses because the technology is there now to manage real estate at that scale. This can be really, really disturbing and from the city authentic perspective., it’s just going to become these new riffs, these new flavors, of the same warmed over bullshit. So cities become as different as Panera is from Jimmy John’s. The distinction is really only that skin deep.
You start to see inklings of that with cities getting really interested in their flag design, that’s something that’s in the book. Or companies that don’t foreground their owner. Starbucks for awhile would own stores that didn’t look like a Starbucks or just a coffee shop, you’d see more of that. Also, the prevalence of a food hall that is usually owned by the developer, or the property manager of the building, and this is just an attempt to just pack a place full of of restaurants pretty quickly and easily and cheaply. That stuff is going to stick around for a while until we see some major shifts in the economy, which could be soon, but usually when there’s a big economic downturn there’s a retrenchment and a consolidation of capital. So they’ll just keep doing stuff like what I just described.
PM: You’re not leaving us on the greatest note of optimism there, David. But this is a realistic podcast; we’re trying to understand what’s actually going on here. But I think that these trends are worrying, as we see these technologies enable capital to increase its power, not just within the cities where they already operate, but to extend that into other cities so that they can further manage more buildings, more property, at a larger scale. It becomes completely divorced from what’s happening locally and just part of this larger trend, and they can more easily push up prices and rejigged things for the types of people that they’re serving, that are more affluent and with little consideration for what it means for the actual place, where they are working and investing in and all this kind of stuff. David, great to talk to you, as always. Obviously recommend people to check out the book “The City Authentic,” find out more about all these things we’ve been talking about today. Thanks so much for taking the time.
DB: Thank you so much for having me.