Manhattan Institute

Bright Lights, Homogenous City

Photo courtesy of Derek ThompsonDerek Thompson discussed living in New York City and Washington, D.C., overlooked urban trends, millennials’ economic future, and more with City Journal assistant editor Charles F. McElwee. Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers economics and culture, and the founder and host of the technology podcast Crazy/Genius. Thompson appears weekly on NPR’s Here and Now and is also a contributor to CBS News. His first book, the bestseller Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction, was named the 2018 Book of the Year by the American Marketing Association. He lives in Washington, D.C.

In The Atlantic, you have written about urban trends, including plummeting birth rates in cities like New York. What are some insights you’ve taken from living in Manhattan?

I moved from Washington to New York in 2012 and then moved back in 2019. When I first left D.C., I was 26, single, and bored; I felt I was retracing the same urban circuit every month. When I moved to New York, I fell in love with its inexhaustibility. After five years in New York, I entered my thirties, got engaged, and concluded that urban inexhaustibility had become merely exhausting. And so, at 33, I made peace with the fact that a measure of habit and ritual in life is deeply desirable. Unlike New York, Washington is profoundly exhaustible. And, as it turns out, so am I.

What are the advantages and challenges of living in Washington, compared with New York?

When it comes to transit, New York’s subway and Washington’s metro are interchangeable for me—quasi-magical when they’re working and hellish when they’re not, which is often. America’s major cities are surprisingly homogenous when it comes to commerce. They have the same gyms, fast-casual restaurants, hip coffee spots, dimly lit cocktail places, and walkable retail districts. Washington, compared with New York, wins on its size. It’s easy to get from place to place to see friends. Where New York wins is on the variety of its restaurants—delis, Chinatown joints, and this huge middle-class tranche of semi-affordable, culinarily diverse restaurants that no city of Washington’s population can possibly match.

You see the biggest difference between the cities when it comes to professions. Washington is a hub-and-spokes metro where the federal government is the hub, meaning that everybody works about one or two degrees away from the same multi-trillion-dollar organization. Most of my closest Washington friends work either in government, in media that covers the government, in law firms and financial organizations that contract with the government, or in nongovernmental agencies that rely directly on government funding. Perhaps that sounds boring, but it orients a lot of conversations around similar topics.

What is an overlooked trend occurring in U.S. cities?

Political, commercial, and demographic convergence. Reviewing the political map, every urban region votes blue in national elections. We think this is normal, but it’s historically unique. Meantime, due to national chains and the Internet’s homogenizing effect, there is less aesthetic diversity between cities—and less industrial diversity, too, since almost every major metro has the same mix of health care, financial services, and consulting jobs. Even Silicon Valley is slowly extending to other cities, since the Bay Area is too expensive, geographically small, and hostile toward development. As a demographic consequence, millennials are slowly leaving the richest, densest coastal areas and moving to places like Austin, Dallas, and Atlanta. That, too, is accelerating the urban convergence—closing the cultural, commercial, and political gaps between, say, urban Texas and urban California.

The Wall Street Journal reports that baby boomers will sell one quarter of America’s homes over the next two decades. What does this portend for suburbs of Rust Belt cities?

I’d love to offer a simple hopeful answer that if housing prices drop enough, people will come. But there is no rule that says that says that’s true. Look at Youngstown, Ohio, where prices have been falling for decades. The city still has one of the nation’s fastest-declining populations, resulting in beautiful big houses sitting empty for years. Survey data tell us that people move within counties for new homes, but they move between counties for new jobs. Perhaps young families who become established in, say, Cincinnati will buy that mansion in the city’s suburbs. But why move hundreds of miles from Atlanta into a rapidly depreciating five-bedroom manse in a metro where you don’t want to work—or can’t?

According to the Federal Reserve, millennials share only 3.2 percent of America’s wealth—the least of any generation. As we enter the 2020s, what does the future hold for millennials?

I’ll take this opportunity to say something optimistic. The unemployment rate is historically low, wage growth is accelerating at the bottom, and there is no obvious bubble in the economy that’s set to pop, which means that any recession is likely to be shallow. This suggests that the U.S. is set up nicely for a decade of slow, steady growth. Also, not to be morbid, but people die; the share of wealth owned by the silent generation—born before 1946—has declined 20 percentage points in the last 10 years. Nobody’s wealth goes to heaven—it all stays right here. We’re such a wealthy country, and we’re going to get richer, yet our political system is weirdly divided between corporate libertarian Republicans and pure redistributionist Democrats. It’s a false choice. We can have both innovation-based growth and redistribution. With both—and a measure of good monetary policy—millennials will get rich.

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