The death of geography? Not so fast...

City

Rock & roll, we know, is a hybrid of several musical traditions (blues, gospel, country, etc.) that have rural roots going back to Europe and Africa. But the synthesis of these styles into a new musical shape occurred in American cities, in places like New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York.

By the mid-20th century, many of the best musicians in their traditional fields had flocked to these cities for the same reason other creative people had. That’s where the action was. That’s where their peers were working, hanging out, exchanging ideas with each other. (That's why I slept a few nights at NYC's Tompkins Square Park in the 60s.) In these urban melting pots a cultural and aesthetic innovation was born: rock & roll! Like so much of art, culture, and commerce, rock owes its very existence to CITIES.

Economists from Richard Florida to Wilbur Thompson to Robert Lucas have argued that urbanization is the foundation of creative enterprise and that cities are true “incubators on innovation.” Over three-fourths of the population of the developed world live in urban communities—metropolitan areas that include suburbs and exurbs.

Economist Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City goes so far as to say that cities are our greatest invention!

Globalization and new technologies have increased the returns to being smart and that we get smart by being around other smart people in cities. Whatever the reason, denser areas now pay higher wages. People follow the money and move to places with more people.

But what about the argument that it really doesn’t matter where we live now, given the “distance-destroying” advances in telecommunications and social media? Well, it turns out that most of us are still choosing to live in high-density areas.

As Glaeser points out, “The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist.” That’s as true for rock & roll as for engineering or design—or most anything else.


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6 Comments

  1. Gary, in your case that's probably true. :-)

    But more and more research shows that face-to-face contact is critical. Even those who work in the industries that make long distance communication possible are themselves choosing to work in close proximity to each other—in areas such as Silicon Valley, Bangalore, NY, Boston, etc. Proximity matters.

  2. Paradoxically, concentrations of people actually make cities greener. Quoting Richard Florida, “Ecologists have found that by concentrating their populations in smaller areas, cities and metros decrease human encroachment on natural habitats. Denser settlement patterns yield energy savings; apartment buildings, for example, are more efficient to heat and cool than detached suburban houses. Urban households emit less carbon dioxide than their suburban and rural counterparts … Emissions are reduced as metros become larger. In other words, increasing metropolitan output is associated with decreasing emissions.” He and colleagues have done the research to support back this up: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/04/why-bigger-cities-are-greener/863/#

    We know that densely populated metropolitan areas are innovation caldrons but we're just starting to appreciate their other benefits.

  3. For sure, hanging out with your peers and exchanging ideas is easier in a city. And in a smaller society, there's probably more pressure to conform and to do things a certain way, 'because that's the way we do it round here.' But here's a couple of points:

    - If that's the case, how come the big companies don't seem to be so creative? How come they get into small-time, don't-put-your-head-above-the-parapet, more-of-the-same blandness?

    - Big cities often have big ghettos with their own rigid cultures, often choosing to ignore or even battle other local cultures.

    - Maybe it's more about individuals who encourage other individuals to try new things, to experiment, to give it a go themselves, take risks and so forth?

    I rather think it's less about where you live than it's about how you approach life. Are you curious? Are you a good listener? Are you prepared to get off your backside and make things happen? Are you determined? Are you prepared to have your mind changed? Are you prepared to stand up for what you believe in?

    1. Sorry for my tardy response, Mark.

      “how come the big companies don’t seem to be so creative? How come they get into small-time, don’t-put-your-head-above-the-parapet, more-of-the-same blandness?”

      Too many large companies—some of which are located in metropolitan areas but many are not (because they’re so self-sufficient they don’t need to be)—are self-contained communities. Even if they're located in cities, they often insulate themselves from their environment and don’t take advantage of the urban benefits of competition and connection. Edward Glaeser makes the point that many big US manufacturers of yesteryear (like the Detroit automakers) lost their competitive edge because they were so wholly integrated that they became economic islands. (He goes into great length on this in "Triumph of the City" which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject.)

      "Big cities often have big ghettos with their own rigid cultures, often choosing to ignore or even battle other local cultures."

      There is definitely a dark underbelly of urban existence—including extreme poverty, disease, crime, etc.—because cities are magnets for the very poor. But those poor who flock to cities are willing to deal with urban poverty after experiencing rural poverty, because there’s at least of path of advancement—however slow—in most cities. Again, the density of human capital in metropolitan areas is what enables innovation and productivity—and eventually a higher standard of living.

      "Maybe it’s more about individuals who encourage other individuals to try new things, to experiment, to give it a go themselves, take risks and so forth?"

      And THOSE individuals tend to gravitate to places where there’s more economic opportunity to do so, i.e., metropolitan areas.

      "I rather think it’s less about where you live than it’s about how you approach life. Are you curious? Are you a good listener? Are you prepared to get off your backside and make things happen? Are you determined? Are you prepared to have your mind changed? Are you prepared to stand up for what you believe in?"

      People like that are most likely to seek out communities to learn from, to create with, to contribute to, and make a living from. And people who are exposed to those metropolitan communities, especially the most creative communities, are more likely to EMERGE with the qualities you describe even if they didn’t ENTER with them.

      If I go on much longer I'll have to copyright this. :-)

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