The Procreative Class

Are single hipsters enough to sustain the center city?

Joel Kotkin, columnist and author of The City: A Global History, has carved out quite a niche for himself critiquing the hip factor of urban development trends. In fact, his frequent lampooning of the supposedly latte-loving "creative class" shtick of economic- and urban-development guru Richard Florida has converted the supposedly old-school Democrat Kotkin into the darling of conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard. And the title of his latest column, in last week's Wall Street Journal, captures Kotkin's argument in a nutshell: "The Rise of Family-Friendly Cities: It's lifestyle, not lattes, that our most productive workers want."

As compelling as I find Florida's philosophy—that in today's highly mobile economy, cosmopolitan amenities are key to attracting high-end employers and their well-paid work forces—I can also see some of Kotkin's point. A city that caters primarily to young singles, while dynamic, is also inherently unstable due to the very churning of population that gives the place its energy. People come, people go. But most never put down roots. And, while loft condos and art galleries may be glamorous, it's playgrounds and good public schools that give a city long-term sustainability.

Philadelphia, the example Kotkin points to in his column, has seen a remarkable renaissance in its Center City, the downtown district that's now home to more than 90,000 residents. The question is, will they stay? "If you want to sustain the revival you have to deal with the fact that people with six-year-olds keep moving to the suburbs," says the president of Philly's Center City Association. "Empty nesters and singles are not enough." While its downtown has rebounded, overall, the city continues to lose population as residents of other old neighborhoods—particularly middle-class families—continue to move out.

Downtown Knoxville has nowhere near 90,000 residents, but the city finds itself in a similar dilemma. The recent success of downtown residential development—driven largely by loft-living singles and empty nesters—has rippled outward, giving a boost to select neighborhoods such as 4th and Gill, Old North, and even Parkridge. But the long-term success of these, and other, center-city neighborhoods is caught up in such complicated issues as school performance, public safety, and services for the less fortunate. Putting the "creative class" in uptown condos seems relatively simple, by comparison, since it often appeals to people who aren't too concerned with the schools and, at least in theory, see socioeconomic diversity as a draw.

Kotkin's animosity aside, however, attracting singles and families aren't mutually exclusive. Safety, for example, is a universal concern. (No matter how cool the corner café is, even the hipsters will head elsewhere if the crack heads keep stealing their stereos.) Plus, as Kotkin conveniently sidesteps, don't all families start out as singles at some point?

Richard Florida makes precisely the same argument in his blog response to Kotkin's column. Quality of life, like safety, is another constant. As an example, Florida offers an anecdote about a Minneapolis woman who was "pleasantly surprised to find that many of the same lifestyle amenities she enjoyed while she was single—the parks and walkable neighborhoods—were even more attractive to her as a married person and new parent." The same is certainly true of many of the young families I know in Knoxville's center city, a surprising number of them once the same sort downtown singles Kotkin disparages.

The "back-to-the-city" trend is still in its infancy, and particularly so in Knoxville. It will take more than five years and a few hundred downtown dwellers to correct overnight the urban ills wrought by decades of disinvestment and abandonment. Change is happening, though. And I suspect Knoxville will look back one day and realize that the shift began with a few loft-living singles who moved on to be families in neighborhoods like 4th and Gill.