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Surveying the Sun Belt Cities.

Cities of the Sun Belt cut a wide swath--both geographically and otherwise. Throughout the last half-century, urban centers stretching from ports of the Old Confederacy to the beaches of the promised land on the Pacific have figured large in the American psyche.

From freeway fights to tax revolts, from uncertainty about the effects of mass immigration to the questions posed by an aging population, the political and cultural tremors from Sun Belt cities have a way of turning into full-scale national upheavals. Nevertheless, these cities continue to offer enticing visions of new prospects.

"Basically, the Sun Belt is the opportunity culture of America," explains Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy at California's Pepperdine University. "It is where you go where nobody cares where you went to college. Your pedigree is less important than it is, let's say, in the Northeast."

In fact, immigration from Latin America and Asia is exploding in the region, and not just in traditional ports of entry line Miami and Los Angeles. The slice of Americana known as Las Vegas has become one of the favorite destinations for new immigrants, aided by the allure of jobs in--and stimulated by--the gambling industry.

And, as the demographics change, so does the politics. At one point, the late Barry Goldwater was considered the archetype of a Sun Belt politician with his cragged, iron-jawed version of right-wing individualism. "Did anyone notice [Bill] Clinton carried Arizona?" quips the centrist Kotkin.

These days, questions about the global economy and the benefits of mass immigration have divided both parties, and they will continue to be cutting-edge issues in Sun Belt cities for some time to come. Crime, schools, and standards of living also resonate with the voters, causing uncertainty to be the rule as far as ideology is concerned.

The Sun Belt cities are still in the process of creating themselves, as a glance at four of them will demonstrate.

Miami. For years, South Florida has been cherished as a vacation and retirement spot; it also has been the natural point of entry for refugees and immigrants. The result is one of the most interesting cities in America.

As with the rest of Florida, in Miami a persistent problem comes from the lack of a single cultural or economic center. The growth corridor of Florida is centered more on the state's east coast, and efforts to make the state a center of the film industry have failed.

Also, Miami suffers because a large percentage of its population lives there only part-time. Still, hopes for the future are bright, says Kotkin, although "it has Latin American politics in the worst possible sense." Massive problems with city financing have demonstrated this.

Atlanta. Whether completely deserved or not, Atlanta became an early symbol of a New South, proudly advertising itself as the city "too busy to hate" during the civil rights turmoil of the early 1960s. This sort of marketing device has been easy for Atlanta, ever since General Sherman burned the place to the ground in 1864, guaranteeing that succeeding generations could constantly rebuild without too much concern about historical preservation.

The suburbs surrounding the city have thrived in recent decades, although they are probably at the low point of their growth cycle. Charlotte, North Carolina, not Atlanta, became the financial capital of the Southeast, and now the merger of homegrown CNN with Time-Warner has tarnished what was, with Coca-Cola, the mainstay of Atlanta corporate culture. The cornerstone of Atlanta's media industry "has been taken over by the most brain-dead part of the New York Establishment," Kotkin says.

Dallas. It's always been easy for outsiders to laugh at Dallas, and they often have. Yet, the home of J.R. Ewing has twice the number of high-tech workers as Austin, the central Texas redneck-bohemian-intellectual-slacker haven much beloved or journalist from both coasts.

While Dallas might not be the sort of place trendsetters and journalists from New York and Washington appreciate, it's definitely the sort of place corporations like to call home. "A middle manager earning $70,000 can buy a 4,000-square-foot home with a swimming pool," notes Kotkin. And the Dallas area is shaping up to be for the twenty-first century what Chicago was for the twentieth--a natural hub. In many ways, it's the logical corporate center of the Sun Belt region.

Phoenix. Phoenix is like Los Angeles in the 1950s, for both better and worse. Growth is booming, as is crime in the city. A key issue will be how Phoenix deals with the opportunities and problems posed by the massive influx of Hispanic immigrants. Kotkin compares the Arizona capital with Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, once a symbol of white bread Southern California culture but now a place where the strip malls feature Thai grocery stores and customers from around the world.

"All of these cities are going to evolve," says Kotkin. This will not necessarily be easy. "There's a sort of cultural unfolding going on, and the Sun Belt cities are all at various stages of immaturity in expressing that." Economic strength has not necessarily meant diminishment in cultural and intellectual inferiority complexes for these new urban areas. And perhaps the literature, music, and art that emerges from these cities will be as important as real estate values and highway congestion in determining the health and future of these growing urban area.

Michael Rust if a writer for Insight magazine.
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Title Annotation:Special Report - Comeback of the Big City; Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix
Author:Rust, Michael
Publication:World and I
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Previous Article:The Big Apple: better than ever.
Next Article:Boomtown, USA.

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