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Can D.C. Learn from New York's Success?
New York was doing well even when we had a zeppelin-based economy. Photo by riptheskull.

New York was doing well even when we had a zeppelin-based economy. Photo by riptheskull.

There is something distinctive about living in New York; over eight million other people are doing it – Don Herold.

Ed Glaeser has another of his very smart, well-informed, but entirely frustrating columns up, this time at Forbes. Glaeser is attempting to answer the question of why New York City has remained so resilient over nearly 250 years of technological, political, and social transformation.

His answers are generally banal truisms, though. New York is a center of innovation and entrepreneurialism and human capital! It’s where the world interacts with America! This particular column doesn’t really burrow down to the deeper question of why New York remains innovative, entrepreneurial and highly skilled.

I think that we in D.C. might be able to answer that question for New York. As a capital city, we compare ourselves to Paris, London, Moscow and Tokyo. We don’t compare ourselves to Atlanta or Miami, the American metro areas closest to us in size. We think, as our built environment compels us to, in terms of greatness. And once we look outward like this, you start to notice that each of these largest cities in powerful countries is just as resilient as New York. More so, really; the world capitals have lasted through many more centuries and through bombing and fires and other challenges that New York has never come close to knowing.

The conclusion that you have to come to is that there is something self-sustaining about being the biggest. You have the most human capital, so you attract human capital. You have the culture, so you attract culture. So on with every other factor that makes a successful city. It seems that you couldn’t kill New York if you tried.

For the rest of us, that’s not the case. You can’t generalize from the nation’s (or maybe region’s in large countries?) most important city to the others. We rise and fall. Boston and Detroit have seen their moments come and go. The Sun Belt’s time may just have ended. D.C. is having a bit of a moment in the sun. But we all need to be figuring out what the present moment requires and taking very active steps to improve our urban areas, from schools to transit to housing. Looking at New York can just obscure that fact.

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