New Money, Nice Town: How Capital Works in the New Urban Economy
Author: Leonard Nevarez
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: June 2003
As an intermittent reader in media, cultural and cyberculture studies, I am honored to see Dianna Dilworth’s review of New Money, Nice Town in the RCCS and pleased to respond. The book offers a somewhat old-fashioned kind of inquiry in the tradition of studying community power, albeit one set in emerging industrial spaces of the new economy, and asks the question, “Are the corporate elites of the new economy -- in this case, the industries of software, entertainment, and tourism -- any different than the traditional urban business communities from ‘old economy’ cities?” To answer, I looked at five central business activities: locating a company, occupying a physical site, dealing with other local businesses, interacting with local government and officials, and supporting community nonprofits. And I found that the new corporate elites both are and aren’t different from the traditional urban business community, in specific ways that vary across industries and settings. Readers can find elaboration in the book; here, I want to lay out two premises of my question in order to highlight my minor disagreements with what I think is an otherwise largely deserved review.
First, my inquiry is rooted in a neomarxist political economy perspective that jettisons the crude determinism and revolutionary baggage and retains the primary concern for economic structure and the unanticipated outcomes of class and elite action. This means I examine the new elites’ ‘culture’ -- i.e. their personal values, expressive behavior, and social tastes -- against a backdrop of business interest to emphasize how profit sets their priorities in at least the last instance. This understanding allows me to contextualize a lot of empirically rich but often atheoretical research on the “cyberselfish” ethos of Silicon Valley, the “bourgeois bohemians” of the new economy, or the “no collar” dot-com workplace. In the same vein, I want to amend Dilworth’s altruistic characterization of entertainment philanthropy. A-list celebrities and executives may very well give to environmental and liberal groups “in order to keep up public appearances as well as to give back for having achieved so much success themselves.” However, New Money, Nice Town shows that they also give in order to do business, which in the reputation-sensitive labor markets of entertainment revolves around the un-altruistic work of social networking and relationship maintenance.
Second, I make sense of cost containment, employee recruitment, and other essential forms of economic behavior found in any particular setting by looking for its connections across geographical space. I contend that the rise of software and entertainment industries in what I call ‘quality of life districts’ manifests the dynamics manifested elsewhere, back in their preeminent industry centers. Often deemed successes of economic development, these centers are at the same time environmental and quality-of-life failures for many elite workers due to unchecked corporate/residential concentration, and so they exert a “push” on some workers that only appears as the “pull” of nice towns. Geography manifests the contradictions of labor control in flexible industries; firms and financiers find it easier to individually permit elite workers’ migratory demands rather than collectively address their urban impacts in ways that might keep elite workers back in industry centers, and so quality-of-life districts are born. The process is similar for tourism, except that the key actors are tourists seeking environmental and place qualities they do not find back home, and their migrations are decidedly less permanent. Accordingly, I want to correct Dilworth’s implication that the dynamics of urban growth described in New Money, Nice Town are replicated in congested edge cities like Riverside, CA, and elsewhere. (As a one-time resident of Riverside, I certainly mean no disrespect.) Quality-of-life districts thrive not because they model the “new community” toward which other places are converging, but because they benefit from the uneven development and geographical difference that neoliberal accumulation necessarily generates. Furthermore, without careful planning and local activism, this restless and contradictory dynamic can render today’s “nice town” tomorrow’s quality-of-life failure.
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