This from Jerry Kurtyka:
EL PASO – MASLOWPOLIS
# 6 – A Consciousness of Cities
The greater our need for food or safety or affection or self-esteem, the more we will see and treat the items of reality, including ourselves and other people, in accordance with their respective abilities to facilitate or obstruct the satisfaction of that need. – Abraham MaslowBack to Richard Florida and his thesis that making your city just like everyplace else is a sure way to kill its attractiveness and, hence, cut off a desirable influx of hipsters and cultural creatives. El Paso pursues a strategy of expensive vanity projects rather than focus on basic infrastructure improvement that today includes ubiquitous high-speed broadband and the ability of citizens to use it effectively in addition to good streets. Who are we trying to attract? Retain?
I see El Paso’s strategy as equivalent to a corporate “best practices” strategy which is to say, if you don’t do it, you fall behind but if you do it, it doesn’t get you ahead of the game. So what is the game? Is there one correct strategy for urban vibrancy?
My urban studies have pointed to two major factors that account for a prosperous and vibrant city: educational attainment and citizen participation. Both of these factors are easily measured, too, and if you have them everything else will fall into place. But not always, it seems.
By my standards, Portland OR ought to be an urban paradise of economic and cultural vitality, yet it has recently been called a place where the young go to retire (NYT Magazine, 09/16/14) because it is over-populated with college grads who live there for the brew pub and coffee house culture, but with few prospects of a professional career in the local economy. El Paso, in contrast, is catching up slowly on educational attainment but is downwardly off the scale in citizen engagement. That is one reason why vested interests have so much leverage over elected officials here. For example, consider a recent CC election in which only 1,000 voters turned out and the winning candidate was largely financed from the west side, not her own district.
In our region, Santa Fe is similar to Portland. I lived in Santa Fe for a year and never met so many PhD bartenders and concierges who came there for the music, literary and art scene. There is a thin line between funky and trashy, too, as I learned. Funky is when my next door neighbor with the 1966 pickup truck on blocks in the driveway and a backyard full of scrap iron has an MFA from Yale and calls himself a sculptor; trashy is when he is just a retired plumber. My favorite restaurant in Santa Fe, La Casa Sena, hires singers from the Santa Fe Opera as wait staff who serenade you with an aria while serving your Aztec-dusted filet. It must be a wonderful experience for them, but what happens when they grow up and want to have a family, steady job and a home for their kids with good schools nearby? They probably don’t stay in Santa Fe.
So, I would say now that my view of urban vibrancy has evolved to be that of a city that has a place for all comers, though it may have a boutique concentration for some. Like Austin does for young techies who want to make the music and food scene on 6th Street when they’re not coding Java for Oracle. Wouldn’t it be great if El Paso could do as much and also accommodate the salon workers and tradesmen and retirees with its affordable housing? There will always be places like Santa Fe and Aspen for a getaway to haute’ culture and skiing, but for me I do not want to feel a total let down when I land back in El Paso and think to myself, “Oh crap, I’m home.” No, I want to feel good about whatever place I call home.
We grappled with this at the Urban Systems Collaborative (USC) conference in London last year and settled on a familiar construct from Psychology 101 to help us organize our ideas as to what makes for quality of life in the city: Maslow’s Pyramid.
Maslow’s Pyramid tells us that we have to meet our needs on a spectrum from the basic upward, otherwise we live in a deficit situation. It’s like some poor kid in Darfur who gets up in the morning and is worried about whether he’ll be alive that evening. Until his needs for security and food are met, he is in no position to plan a future at Harvard. In the city, this means that we usually don’t build an opera house until we have good roads to it with water and sewer. The city has to meet its needs from the bottom up rather than the top down, which explains why so many of us are concerned with the condition of El Paso’s streets while the CC goes off on a debt-fueled trolley ride. We have different opinions about where El Paso sits on the Pyramid.
So, look at my expanded Maslow Pyramid and ask yourself where El Paso is and where it might go with the understanding that we will never be a boutique city like Mendocino or Sedona. But the boutiques are not necessarily friendly or affordable to all comers, either. The little craft homes in Rio Grande here that sell for $60K could easily cost $500K in boutique Aspen. Where is the value difference coming from other than what Aspen offers further up the Pyramid that very wealthy people are willing to pay for?
But the average El Paso family of mom, dad and 2.5 little ones earning $40K annually doesn’t necessarily need that space at the top of the pyramid as much as they need good schools and roads to get to work at ADP on time. The existential question for yourself then is, “What do I need in my city and will I find it here?” Where is the value coming from here in El Paso that our citizens do not vote, our CC is obsessed with vanity projects, and we are thrilled when ADP expands paper-smashing jobs?
NEXT – Some Affordable Steps to Renewal