Sunday, November 30, 2008

Who's your city?

Mardel and I recently read Richard Florida's Who's your city? We both found it a quick read, even though some reviewers at Goodreads found the statistics slow going. Perhaps people who can knit and sew don't have a problem plowing through statistics? ;-)

We were emailing about welcome changes we had seen in our neighborhoods and why we enjoy our respective neighborhoods. Richard Florida is right. The people you meet where you live are a big factor in enjoyment of life and the opportunities afforded you.

Who's your city? departs from Richard Florida's earlier books in that it is partly a self-help book to help people answer the questions, "Where should I live?" If you are looking for carefully annotated scholarly research, read one of his earlier books or papers. If you want a quick overview of his ideas, this is good. The book is organized into four parts:
  1. Why place matters
  2. The wealth of place
  3. The geography of happiness
  4. Where we live now
The first section is classic Richard Florida, quickly covering his research about why the economies of some cities outshine those of other cities? Why do people choose to live in a small apartment in San Francisco (or an even tinier one in Manhattan) rather than live in a palace in Cleveland? Then he proceeds to answer the question and attempts to help readers select the right cities for their stage in life.

I feel an attachment to this book for two reasons. The mega-region hypothesis is supported by light data from our satellites. The second reason is because Mark and I performed a nationwide job and home search at the end of his postdoc. We lived Florida's research. The things we learned about differences between places, and about our own values, led us right here.

It is important to backtrack and note that we both grew up in California--San Diego and San Francisco/Silicon Valley. We went to college and grad school in places like Cambridge, MA; Berkeley, CA and Boulder, CO. We projected what we knew onto the rest of the nation, and we were drastically wrong. We did not live in representative places. Moreover, we had a "two-body problem".

Mark wanted an academic job and I wanted a national lab job. Because we lived in places where both can be found within reasonable commute distance from one another, we thought there would be plenty of places like that. NOT.

Mark sent out two dozen applications and interviewed at over a dozen places before he began to decline interviews. At each interview, Mark asked, "Can I bring Grace here?" At one place, he was so depressed, he asked, "Could I bring myself here?"

[BTW, that was my dad's grad school. When the chair of the search committee called to set up an interview, I answered the phone. He asked me if I even knew where their city was. I replied, "Yes, my dad went to grad school there."

"I guess we don't have a shot at getting you back here." Then he proceeded to call my husband's postdoc adviser to discuss (for an hour!) my career plans and whether I could be content to live there. I believe I was a major factor in why they offered the job to another postdoc in the department.

They knew nothing about the other guy's wife, but it would have saved them much grief if they displayed more curiosity. She wrote a spectacular PhD thesis and had been offered visiting professor positions at both MIT and U of Michigan. They used X State only as a holding position for him until she was ready for her own nationwide faculty job search.]

Anyway, back to the main story.

We naively thought that any metro area of greater than one million would offer enough job possibilities for me. WRONG. We visited one city of 1.5 million that had depressingly few jobs above minimum wage and almost none for PhDs in science. We learned from the other junior faculty about the toll the local job market had upon their marriages. The spouse of one gave up looking for a PhD job after 10 years and went back for a MD. Another faculty member was competing against Mark for positions in more desirable job markets for her spouse.

The universities were no help when it came to two-body job searches. For the most part, they left spouses to their own devices. One school sent me house-hunting with a real estate agent who could boast of nothing other than low, low house prices. The prices were so low, we could buy a house with one income! We would have had to, as there were no job opportunities for me.

Worse, we could only see ourselves as carpetbaggers in those places because we didn't feel like we belonged there. We would only imagine living there until retirement before heading back to someplace where we felt more comfortable.

I came back from one trip and told friends that I was scared to live in city Z as an inter-racial couple. Her brow furrowed. Then a look of recognition flashed. "Oh, you ARE an inter-racial couple." Yep, we had worked and played VB together for 2 years and she hadn't yet realized we were different races. This comes from living in certain highly-rated places in Who's your city. ;-)

The depressing thing we learned was, some cities are traps for young people. If we settled there, then we would be trapped forever by low incomes, limited employment opportunities, and low housing prices. We could never be able move back to coastal California for retirement.

A chance email led Mark to his current job. He came back from that interview more excited than by any other. Why? Because he really liked the people he met. He said they were interesting people and they had hobbies. Mark asked, "Remember when we were interesting people, too? If I took that job, I could be interesting again."

It didn't hurt that LA is a reasonable drive from SD and SF. We had already spent many happy weekends visiting one of Mark's old MIT friends who lived in our current zip code. That friend also happens to be gay, which illustrates another one of Florida's points. And that friend now lives within two miles of where I grew up.

Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life is a good companion read to The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. My only quibble is that both books give short shrift to the two-body problem. They both mention it in passing, but don't delve deeply into why couples like Bad Dad and I cannot live outside of a few metro areas within the US. Florida mentions it only in the context of finding a mate.


  1. Thanks for the tip on the book; although I'm 47 and pretty well settled in my hometown (Portland, OR) I'm not a 100% fit here (I've had trouble making local friends my whole life here) and will check for another possible home.

  2. Very interesting topic!
    I grew up in Toronto - Canada's biggest city, with decent public transit, libraries and schools. What seems like every nationalities' restaurants are available here, and now more than 50% of Torontonians were born outside Canada.
    I went to university here (most Canadians stay at home to attend public universities), and found all of my subsequent jobs through people I met at university.
    I cycle to work when there is no snow on the ground. I have never applied for a car driver's licence.
    It seems odd if my aquaintances in couples are not each from different cultural backgrounds.
    My family is here, and I like being close to my family.
    Otherwise I think there are only a few places I could live in North America if I could find a job there - Vancouver (only 1 million people though), San Francisco or New York (but I would need a much bigger paycheque for NYC). Montreal would be on the list if I liked snow more and if I spoke French.
    Luckily my parents decided to make the move to Toronto, and I have definitely benefited!!


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