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Revolt of the Nice

Edge City, capital of the twenty-first century

With its lonely office towers standing sentinel on the side of I-94, Hoffman Estates, Ill., seemed like the last outpost of activity before the billboard-dotted stretch of farmland that eventually becomes Wisconsin. It was a familiar sight for anyone driving north of Chicago. But what was Hoffman Estates? For a number of urban scholars and sociologists, there was something about Hoffman Estates and similar developments that make them more than suburbs, yet not quite cities, and they flocked to the drawing board to sketch its form. A slew of interpretations followed: Robert Fishman called them “technoburbs,” for their high-tech companies and facilities; Kenneth Jackson called them “centerless cities”; “middle landscape” was suggested by Peter Rowe; while Edward Soja favored “exopolis.” Others weighed in with more clinical terms like “multinucleated metropolitan region.”

But it was Joel Garreau, with his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, who seized the Zeitgeist and captured the imagination of journalists and opinion makers busy reporting the forces at work in places like Hoffman Estates. Edge City, a new brand name for a phenomenon urban scholars had long been trying to name, was born, and Garreau became brand manager. Since writing Edge City, Garreau, a Washington Post reporter, has built himself a virtual cottage industry of post-suburban boosterism. In magazines from American Demographics to Inc. to The New Republic to The Edge City News, Garreau blankets the intellectual turf like a propaganda pamphlet drop, issuing new installments in his paean-in-progress to Edge City—those curious corporate campus towns with strange hybrid names like the Katy Freeway-West Houston Energy Corridor or the Reston-Herndon-Dulles Access Road Area, which sometime in the 1980s went from being outposts of managerial synergy and decent parking to, in Garreau’s mind, full-fledged urban entities.

For Garreau, Edge Cities are not merely another soulless expression of corporate relocation and disposable exurban sprawl. Nor are they suburbs in new clothes. Garreau identifies his product as any place that has at least five million square feet of leasable office space, at least 600,000 square feet of leasable retail space (“the equivalent of a fair sized mall”), “more jobs than bedrooms,” is “perceived by the population as one place,” and was “nothing like ‘city’ as recently as thirty years ago.” Given this liberal definition, Edge Cities can be portrayed as the creators of most of the wealth and employment in the U.S. today, and in their jumbled agglomeration of mixed-density retail and often indistinguishable office towers Garreau sees the future of America itself.

Garreau’s odyssey from objective chronicler to Edge City partisan is an unlikely one, as he recounts in the introduction to his book. When high-rise office buildings began to appear near his home in the Virginia suburbs, putting “Houston” cheek-by-jowl with the pastoral glens of Fairfax County, he set out to find out “who was doing this to us.” Somewhere along the path of investigating this “clear and present danger to Western Civilization,” he met the “enemy,” he says, and the enemy “was us.” Heading in to the heart of blandness, steaming slowly upriver past New Jersey malls and California planned developments, Garreau began to see order amongst the chaos, hope amongst the natives, a glimmering future in the wilderness. In short, Garreau began to like Edge Cities. Somewhere between a food court in Newport Beach and a chunk of Class-A office space in Atlanta, our trusty Marlowe became Kurtz.

Now, as a “principal” in The Edge City News (an expensive newsletter designed to deliver “need-to-know” information to Edge City decision-makers) and a “stakeholder” (TECN’s term for what used to be called “citizens”) in Edge City, Garreau delivers his by-now-familiar pitch: Edge Cities are the bustling new frontier of America, the next wave in the process by which “we”: first, moved to the suburbs to escape the city; then, moved the city’s marketplaces to the suburbs for convenience’s sake; and now, in a triumph of democratic will, have “moved our means of creating wealth, the essence of urbanism—our jobs—out to where most of us have lived and shopped for two generations.” There are, as he points out, 190 Edge Cities larger than Orlando; but only forty downtowns the size of Orlando. Edge Cities make up the top thirteen spots for median 1990 household income, and eighteen of the top forty largest job centers in the U.S. are in places like the Santa Ana Freeway/Anaheim or the Dallas Galleria/LBJ Freeway Area. Edge Cities now house the bulk of the nation’s population, create the majority of jobs, have less crime, are safer and more comfortable, and are the standard residence of choice for most Fortune 500 headquarters. These developments, by all reasonable estimates, seem destined to continue.

Like other historical modes of urban life, Edge Cities are expressions of the prevailing economic order. Today business theorists chatter about a world without boundaries, a world of non-particularity, a world of “telepresence” and the “virtual office,” a world of dispersed corporations. As Garreau admits, “the reason there are no ‘Welcome to’ signs in Edge City is that it is a judgment call where it begins and ends.” The Edge City model is sweeping Europe as well, Garreau writes excitedly, despite “immensely different” political, economic, and cultural systems; what he fails to consider, however, is that the corporations creating these complexes are units of the same multinational Parents—IBM France, Colgate Palmolive, British Petroleum—that create Edge Cities in the U.S. Is it any wonder that as corporations become less site-specific, relying on an abstract global labor force and “universal brands,” the enclaves they construct should be any less homogenous?

For Garreau, homeowner associations are innovative solutions to the problems of life on the frontier. A less charitable view would see them as an attempt to localize government so it only serves a small number of homogeneous residents.

Edge Cities are where corporations go to “re-engineer” themselves, free from the labor unions, tight regulation, and tax burdens of traditional downtowns. According to Garreau, it is also where people go to reinvent themselves, free from the rigid structures of the city, which maintain fixed and frozen relations between the very poor and very rich. Garreau writes enthusiastically that “Edge Cities are for entrepreneurs, while downtowns are for old-fashioned Organization Men.” But out here in the supposedly classless and fluid Edge Cities, Garreau says, “we invent new institutions to create community, new ways to connect with each other.” But as he concedes, it’s a tenuous and contradictory notion of community upon which Edge City is built. The entrepreneurial flux and rapid growth that gives economic life to Edge City is the same force that undermines the notion of a stable community. Community, in the sense of those seeking to preserve a set way of life they have established for themselves, thus becomes “the enemy of change—and the growth of Edge City.” Edge City is fundamentally hostile to community in a more concrete sense as well—it is aggressively designed to keep others out. Christopher Lasch calls it “a revolt of the elites” and Robert Reich a “secession of the successful”: what Edge City boils down to is not only an economic and cultural distancing from people of a different race and class, but a purposeful withdrawal from involvement in and responsibility for the greater politic of the city. In Edge City, the architecture perfectly embodies this principle of detachment. Driving across the George Washington Bridge from New York into the Edge City of Fort Lee, NJ, one faces straightaway the intimidating specter of defensible corporate space: the dull-metallic reflective armor of one tower sits atop on its own stacked parking garage, a fortress unto itself; while nearby another building—resembling a vertical ice cube tray—looms like a violent and utterly alien blemish on the landscape.

The “associations” whose prevalence de Tocqueville once marveled at have now become homeowner associations, another expression of what political scientist Evan McKenzie calls “privatopia”—the privately run and financed developments that make up most of Edge City housing. For Garreau, homeowner associations are innovative solutions to the problems of life on the frontier. A less charitable view would see them as an attempt to localize government so it only serves a small number of homogeneous residents; and, as they contract out for services, an attempt to render the city obsolete altogether. A letter in TECN from the chairman of an Atlanta Edge City coalition exemplifies this: “Seventy-five chief executive officers of major firms joined together (paying annual dues of $5,000 each) to substitute for and supplement governmental actions affecting quality of life … funding equipment needs for mall policing, lobbying for improved roadway access, providing support for the public high school, marketing the community through an annual guide book….”

And what becomes of public expression in the privatopias of Edge City? Garreau apologizes for the censoring of free speech in Edge City shopping malls (“public spaces that are really private property,” he says, seemingly without irony) by saying “it’s a question of how much we value safety and comfort.” Shopping malls, for Garreau, are actually a sign of cultural vitality, modern day public squares where the classes can mingle, if not shop at the same store (or on the same floor). In his usual booster tone he waxes enthusiastic about a mall in Bridgewater, NJ.:

The mall’s a doozy. The first floor (The Commons Collection) caters to the affluent with Brooks Brothers, Laura Ashley, Godiva, and major-league indoor trees. The third floor, by contrast (Campus), is neon “under twenty-five” heaven. It has an enormous Sam Goody’s record store, a store that sells nothing but sunglasses, a store that sells nothing but artifacts from cartoons … (You want village green? You got it. Squint a little. This is what it looks like in the late twentieth century).

So an authentic and vigorous civic life is now built around the promise that a store exists that sells “nothing but sunglasses.” In his grand civic delusion, Garreau can call a mall a village green if he likes—but remember, if it looks like a mall, has a Body Shop and a Banana Republic, and has security guards who would escort anyone out who so much as brandished a political flyer, it’s probably just a mall. Unlike the village green, the mall is designed to orient the consumer in one direction: to consume. It is built for no other reason.

The pseudo-culture of Edge City now infects New York as well, as themed restaurants offering generic food and pricy merchandise sprout up to offer safe havens for Edge City tourists.

But there is one thing that has kept Edge City from meeting its true realization as an urban place: culture. Culture is the Holy Grail of the inscrutable Edge City category Garreau calls “Nice.” The elements of the “nice”—lakefront vistas, schools with “astonishingly high SAT scores,” golf courses, country clubs—are why Garreau says Edge Cities arise where they do, for if cheap development were the only issue blue-collar white ethnic suburbs closer to the city would suffice. The pursuit of the “nice,” which often stands in the way of building the ideal corporate post-industrial infrastructure (e.g., parking lots) of Edge City, is a key challenge for Edge City. Garreau knows that many people find Edge Cities aesthetically and culturally appalling. But he is optimistic. “Edge City is the creation of people with money,” he writes. “If they want ‘culture’ they’ll get it.” In American Demographics, Garreau continues excitedly that culture is beginning to arrive: seven of the top ten places with the highest ratio of bars-to-employed people are Edge Cities (all ten are in Texas). You know the sort of place they are. A franchise “theme” bar where the highlight of the week is Goldschlager night and maybe jello shots and karaoke; where junior symbolic analysts can imbibe the European flavored-vodka-of-the-month and pass along today’s O.J. joke as funneled through the emerging markets desk; the kind of scene the New York Observer once described as “full bars, empty minds.” In the Edge City of Irvine, the owners of the first bar to open there described it to the Los Angeles Times as an “upscale, traditional Jamaican plantation … where patrons can graze on appetizers including fresh oysters injected with Stolichnaya.” (One is loath to speculate where the indigenous labor of a “traditional plantation” fits into this scheme).

But that’s not all. Edge City professionals now have a variety of “fragrant, intriguing, and tasty cuisines” at their disposal. This thanks to Vietnamese and El Salvadoran immigrants—the ones many suburban voters would like to send back but whose economy increasingly can’t seem to do without. Beyond bars, ethnic restaurants, and malls, Edge City culture gets a little hazy. TECN describes a New Age ritual in which people gather around the Quorum office complex near the Dallas Galleria to watch the vernal equinox (“And people say Edge City has no soul” they chuckle); leaving one to wonder if the ancient Druids might not have some leadership secrets to pass along. Edge City is affluent: the rest will follow. “You want rich. You got it,” crows Garreau.

Garreau also likes to trot out the transparent claim that by giving people a place to flex their entrepreneurial spirit, Edge Cities actually revitalize downtowns, since those moneyed Edge professionals can spend their disposable income as tourists to the city’s museums, theaters, and retail centers. Actually, the effects of Edge Cities on traditional downtowns have been much more profound. The architectural and planning lessons, the mass retailing strategies, and nascent “shadow governments” of Edge City are, in a brutal twist of irony, being reapplied to downtown. From New York’s South Street Seaport to MCA’s City Walk in Los Angeles to Baltimore’s Harbor Front, the metropolis of old is rapidly becoming a retail museum (or a living museum gift shop), a denatured festival marketplace inorganically grafted onto an old industrial district.

In New York, the private security and maintenance forces of Edge City are used to patrol the business improvement districts in enclaves across town. Residents can even inhabit their own Edge City preserve, the decidedly Dallas-like Battery Park City. The pseudo-culture of Edge City now infects New York as well, as themed restaurants offering generic food and pricy merchandise sprout up to offer safe havens for Edge City tourists. The whole spectacle recalls what Henry James called “the hotel world,” that great cultural contrivance at the pinnacle of American civilization in which an entire environment is created, based not on nature and history but on satisfying and elevating desires.

Now that Edge City has entered the “real city,” its effective triumph on the world stage of history would seem to be complete. But there are cracks in the facade. As Charles Lockwood reported in the Wall Street Journal, some Edge Cities, or “suburban downtowns,” are having the economic problems long associated with decaying urban centers. Lockwood argues that American corporations are finding that with telecommuting and “hoteling,” they no longer need the massive 1980s-style office complexes of Edge City. Other corporations are pulling up stakes in favor of ever more distant realms, some even relocating back to downtown (with Boston’s vacancy rate dropping to 12 percent from 19 percent in 1991). Indeed, the notion of the flight of jobs and industry to Edge City, while often taken as a fait accompli, can be misleading. Just recently, the Prodigy Service Corporation, a leading on-line provider exemplary of the high-tech Edge City landscape, announced it was relocating from White Plains, NY, to New York City; apparently to be closer to the multimedia companies growing in the downtown area. There is nothing in natural or economic law that says business must move away from downtown into the great sprawl beyond. Inner cities are not by their own logic bound to fail: they are pushed into their problems by business’s concerted withdrawal into their private sanctuaries of nice. When movements like regional tax sharing try to redirect some of the fruits of “nice” back to the less privileged segments of the metropolitan region, Edge City cries “backlash.” As the TECN notes: “Many people, including Edge City stakeholders, view such redistribution of revenues as in effect penalizing neighborhoods that work in order to bolster districts—and, in some cases, policies that don’t.” Edge City thus justifies itself in moralistic terms as a “community that works,” as if this were some inherent condition apart from the billions of dollars in corporate investment that makes Edge City viable.

We can glimpse an Edge City future different from Garreau’s optimistic vision in the problems that are now plaguing many old suburbs. Mike Davis, writing in the Los Angeles Times, lists a number of inner-ring suburbs that are now faced with the same problems of crime, homelessness, and unemployment as the inner city. As Davis argues, these suburbs, which once took jobs and revenues from downtowns and were heralded with the same enthusiasm that Edge Cities are now, have in turn seen their jobs and tax revenues move to more favorable elsewheres. The decline of the older suburbs triggers a new kind of populist resentment towards the new suburbs, whose sparkling postmodern towers stand in contrast to the tract housing of yesterday, which suffers from what Davis calls “premature physical obsolescence.”

Rather than a Rockefeller building art museums for collective enjoyment, we have a Bill Gates building for profit an Internet system that allows people to download digitized art images into their own homes.

There is something particularly sad about a dying suburb, or a struggling Edge City. While Garreau and others contend that Edge Cities are “works in progress,” raw and ragged like the frontier cities of the past, and that in time, they will blossom into virtual Venices, this now seems unlikely. In Edge City there is no vision beyond the immediate production and distribution needs of corporate America. Nor is there any history, apart from highway rest stops named after heroes from the past. It is not merely their newness that makes Edge Cities so ahistorical, for built into their very structure is the blanking of history: the ruthless casting of light onto the historical negative. They are direct projections of managerial capitalism, places of innovation and obsolescence. Like the outmoded computer chip of last year they—and their Information Age residents—will be deemed vestigial as soon as they lose their competitive edge.

Planners argue that, to prosper and flourish, Edge Cities require “fill-in” development, the kind of mixed-use, high-density public places that would create some island of community amid all the parking lots. But lacking a viable governmental structure, bereft of any semblance of “civic pride,” restrained by scant tax bases, and devoid of any overarching vision, it is hard to imagine such development happening. While it is true that nineteenth century American cities had governmental structures as fragile as Edge City, they at least had the public works projects of millionaire industrialists, who, robber barons though they were, felt some impulse to create civic structures. The high-tech captains of industry in Edge City share no such feeling of responsibility. Rather than a Rockefeller building art museums for collective enjoyment, we have a Bill Gates building for profit an Internet system that allows people to download digitized art images into their own homes.

And if some unimaginable economic or social “destabilization” someday renders Edge City hostile to the corporate agenda, business will simply relocate. But here, unlike traditional downtowns, citizens will scarcely feel compelled to save what is left behind. The motto of Edge City’s scorched-earth development policy could be, “destroy the village to save the company.” The shortsighted efforts of planners and the disposable exoskeletons of aesthetically appalling office parks will simply be abandoned. Walter Benjamin’s writing on nineteenth century Paris begins to seem especially prescient: “In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”

However inspired he may seem, Garreau is as banal and moribund as the suburban downtowns themselves. In breathlessly evoking the quantitative superiority of Edge Cities, Garreau becomes the über-booster, ignoring the democratic decay and the triumph of marketplace values that these developments represent, enthralled with a corrupt form of populism that paints Edge Cities, because they house and employ so many people, as the undistilled American spirit. But unlike suburbia, which spawned a litany of jeremiads, Edge City has settled across the landscape with little more than an acknowledgment that is has done so. It is as if critics, leery of being labeled elitist, were afraid to challenge what is construed as the popular will: people are living there, so they must like living there. But as Herbert Muschamp has written, Edge Cities are founded on the eradication of the popular will, built beyond planning, beyond government, beyond taxation. In the great DMZ of deregulation they sprout, in baleful testament to the failure of municipal politics and the triumph of the corporate ethos.