BOTH HERE and in my travels recently, I’ve been awestruck by the pace and scale of revitalization going on in many American cities.
Every time I think it might finally have to slow down, if just to cool off for a bit, it just speeds up even more.
From high-rise apartment buildings sprouting like mushrooms all over previously blighted areas, to massive private/public investments on scales previously undreamt of, to a plethora of new food and beverage options on seemingly every street corner, Sun Belt cities from Atlanta to Nashville to Charleston to Savannah are exploding economically.
One jaw-dropping statistic says that over 70 percent of American job growth in the last ten years has been in the largest and/or hottest cities.
That is urbanization on a truly grand scale, probably only matched by the first Industrial Revolution.
Contributing factors include millennials graduating from college and entering the work/marriage/homeowner market, the increasing importance of knowledge-based jobs, and the slow but steady reversal of a half-century of “White Flight.”
The profound and still-widening cultural and political divide between urban and rural America, in my opinion, has also played a huge part in this new economic reality.
But what does it really mean? And are these streets really paved with gold for everyone in these hot cities?
A timely recent edition of the NPR podcast “Planet Money” delivered some major insight during this time when even little ol’ Savannah seems to be growing and changing faster than anyone can effectively deal with. (Hat tip to Connect contributor Jason Combs for calling my attention to this podcast, Episode 919.)
According to MIT economics professor David Autor, the “boom” in hot-market jobs is very counterintuitive — arguably even deceptive — in nature.
In a phenomenon called “Urban Job Polarization,” it turns out these hot markets actually develop two tiers of jobs: High-paying knowledge-based jobs which require a college education, and low-paying service jobs which don’t.
The middle tier of jobs, research shows, is more and more hollowed out due to automation and outsourcing.
“Non-college educated workers are primarily there to see to the care and comfort and security of the more affluent,” says Autor of service workers in these “superstar cities.”
“They have been reshuffled into these jobs that use arguably more generic skill sets. That’s why it’s hard for them to command high wages,” he says.
Sound a bit like... Savannah?
This job polarization is worst in the most super of the superstar cities, where job growth has been the strongest.
The data seems to be a bit of a repudiation of the old “a rising tide lifts all boats” economic thesis, which experienced widespread acceptance as gospel in the 1990s.
Autor goes so far as to say that cities are “overrated” in economic terms — or overrated for adults without college degrees anyway, which is at least one out of every three American workers.
“For about a third of the country, cities are a lousy deal,” he says, concluding frankly that, “If you don’t have to be in a superstar city to do your job, you probably shouldn’t go.”
Generally, Autor is talking about truly large markets, such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta.
But I would argue that Savannah, despite our microscopic size compared to these behemoth metro areas, is an anomaly, and might actually belong on that list.
Our huge tourist presence and sizzling-hot brand are making Savannah a go-to destination for people moving here and investing here from all over the country, including from those much larger markets.
Simultaneously, we have seemingly permanent barriers to wealth and opportunity for a large portion of our population, in the midst of this lightning-fast growth.
We basically already had a two-tiered economy here, engrained and reinforced through generations of wealth disparity, insititional bias, and miserable public education, to name a few reasons.
It would behoove us for our leaders, whether elected or at the grassroots level, to not be blinded by the glint of gold-paved streets that can only be traveled by some of us.