Monday, May 26, 2008

Differences in Urban Development: A Mystery

I spent the past weekend in two of my favorite cities: Philadelphia, where I taught Wharton Executive MBAs, and Boston, where I attended a wedding.

Over the past 25 years or so, the Boston MSA has done quite well, while the Philadelphia MSA has not. Among the 25 largest MSAs, Boston ranked 3rd in per capita income in the 2000 census, while Philadelphia ranked 11th. While neither area has rapid population growth by US standards, Boston has been growing more rapidly than Philadelphia. And while more than 40 percent of those over the age of 25 who lived in the Boston PMSA in 2002 had completed a bachelor's degree, only slight more than 30 percent of those in the Philadelphia PMSA had done so.

Yet the two cities have much in common: rich histories, great colleges and universities, large manufacturing bases that largely disappeared, some very beautiful architecture. The weather in Philadelphia is, if anything, better than in Boston; Boston has slightly better air service. Both cities live in the shadow of New York, although the shadow is probably darker in Philadelphia. I personally prefer the restaurants in Philadelphia.

But Philadelphia's impoverished neighborhoods have continued to deteriorate, while
Boston's have been gentrifying. The poverty rate in Philadelphia is also substantially higher than it is in Boston. My informal polling of students suggests that while those who go to school in Philadelphia enjoy doing so, they are looking to leave upon graduation. Those in Boston seek to stay.

Exploring how these differences came to be would make for an excellent book. Someone should write it.


Roy said...

Guess #1: Boston has a more comprehensive network of local subway and trolleys. Philadelphia has better rail service via the Main Line to more distant suburbs. This encourages gentrification in Boston and discourages the same in Philadelphia.

Guess #2: Boston has a much larger (per capita) college student population which is a driver for gentrification.

Roy said...

Reading to the end, I see my Guess #2 is better captured by your observation about the different attitudes of their college students.

lesliea said...

Richard -- In 1996 E. Digby Baltzell published a book that addresses some of the differences between the two cities going way back -- Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia. Here is an excerpt of a review.

Digby Baltzell uses the history of Philadelphia and Boston as very real examples of two types of leadership. In Boston, the "Boston Brahmin" elites formed a strong upper class that was not tolerant, certainly, but took responsibility for community life and exercised a tremendous influence on American culture, politics, arts, and science. In Philadelphia, the "Proper Philadelphians" were charming, tolerant--and deeply irresponsible, abandoning any role in governing the city and making it by common agreement the worst run city in the United States. When Philadelphia needed a mover and shaker, it imported some one from outside, like Ben Franklin.
Baltzell takes these difference back to the colonial period and the dramatic differences in the viewpoints of the Puritans who founded Boston and the Quakers who founded Philadelphia. He also sees these changes working forward as the old upper-class socialize immigrant elites into their respective patterns, producing the Kennedy clan out of Boston, and Grace Kelly out of Philadelphia. Many of the points here can also be seen in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed.

Zachary said...

You might find the current changes in the Los Angeles urban community to be an interesting case study as well.