THE PLANK FEBRUARY 17, 2009
In his column in today's New York Times, David Brooks argues that most Americans don't want to live in cities, despite his assertion that "some writers" now believe otherwise. Relying on a new report from the Pew Research Center about favorite places to live in America, he reduces cities, in typical Brooks fashion, to unified totalities of stereotypical aspirations:
If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.
Obviously--to Brooks, at least--because most Americans didn't name New York City, they must reject city living as a whole; because they named Denver their most desirable city, they must all love skiing (and Coors, I suppose). This is patently ridiculous: Why can we assume that Denver represents the same thing to all people? And why is wanting to live in Denver versus New York proof positive that Americans don't want to live in cities? Last time I checked, Denver was a pretty big city itself. (To be fair, the poll did specify the city "or its surrounding metropolitan area," but that's sort of the point: Why does a question about New York or Boston mean only the urban core, while the same question about Denver means everything but its urban core?)
The report includes a demographic breakdown of the respondents, though Brooks is fine assuming they are all like him: white and upper middle class, with white upper-middle class aspirations, likes, and dislikes. But there are lots of different people in America, with lots of different
reasons for wanting to live in one place or another. Americans come in all shapes and sizes, and a single black mother in Southeast D.C. who can't find a decent job is going to dislike city living for entirely different reasons than a $500k-a-year, married white lobbyist with two kids living in Chevy Chase.
I'm not the first to say it, but these sorts of columns point up the limits of pop sociology: Starting with a few data points and drawing clever conclusions might be a lot of fun, but it's analytically useless, because the writer has to import so many baseless assumptions to make their point.