Why Is Your Hometown Located Where It Is? Deep, protected bays like Tampa, Fla., or San Francisco are perfect for port cities. Minneapolis is situated at the Mississippi River's highest navigable point. But why did Phoenix and Las Vegas thrive in the middle of the desert?

Why Is Your Hometown Located Where It Is?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Stop for a moment and think about this question: Why is your hometown where it is? Well, the answer, or the three answers, are all related to the three principles of real estate: location, location, location. Deep protected bays like Tampa or San Francisco are perfect for port cities. Minneapolis is situated at the Mississippi River's highest navigable point. Denver's on a river at the eastern of the Rockies. But why did Phoenix and Las Vegas thrive in the middle of the desert? Why are some towns built and rebuilt on natural floodplains? And what happens when the geographic imperative for a town goes away? Why do some cities adapt while others become ghost towns?

So why is your town where it is? And if that reason has been changed--if the mine's been tapped out, for example, if the harbor has silted up--what's the city doing to reinvent itself? How successful has it been? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Later in the program, Judge Alito and the ABA and Ted Koppel signs a deal with Discovery. But first, geography lessons. We're joined by Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "The City: A Global History." He joins us from the studios of member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

And nice of you to join us today.

Mr. JOEL KOTKIN (New America Foundation): Oh, it's my pleasure.

CONAN: Why don't we start by looking at one of the biggest cities in America's heartland? Why is St. Louis where it is?

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, St. Louis is--was very conveniently located at the junction of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. And the Mississippi, of course, is the great river, the--really, the most important river in North America and the main north-south route for, you know, many years, even from before there was a United States. The Missouri River was part of the way that you actually got further west. So it became this sort of, if you will, the way to get into the Western United States if you were going to go by river. So that confluence made St. Louis a natural place to build a great city.

CONAN: Hmm. But then why St. Louis is such a great city, but then Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi--that's not such a big town.

Mr. KOTKIN: You know, these things happen for many reasons. I mean, one thing, of course, the Missouri is a very major river and it goes very far west. Remember, in the--historically, river travel was much more important and much easier than travel by land. So I think there was a sort of strategic difference. The country was moving west; this was a river that went west. The Ohio had, of course, many other important cities like Cincinnati that it also--also were on that river. So it really depends.

But I'll tell you a underestimated factor is the civic culture, if you will, the aggressive and the hard work and the ambitions of the people who run a city. Some cities might have great natural attributes, but they don't really completely take advantage of them. And other ones that don't really have great attributes manage to become great cities because the people who run those places will them to be.

CONAN: Hmm. But getting back to geographic principles, obviously, you're talking about water, and communications by water is easier and much cheaper than communications by land.

Mr. KOTKIN: Right. And this was one of the reasons why, if you go in ancient history, almost every major city was either on a major river--going back to the very beginnings, Tigris-Euphrates...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: ...or on some sort of--usually a large lake or an inland sea like the Mediterranean, where it was relatively easy to get places. The importance of river and lake and inland sea in ancient history is pretty profound. Our oceanic travel became important, but basically later because it was very, very difficult.

CONAN: Let's get a listener involved in the conversation. And if you'd like to join us again, it's (800) 989-8255. Or e-mail us: totn@npr.org. Roger, Roger's calling us from Louisville, Kentucky.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, I've always been fascinated by how Atlanta has grown by its location, 'cause it's really there for not many natural reasons. I understand--I think it was a confluence of a couple of railroads. And the city grew in 360 degrees; it grew as a circle out from a center and really had unbridled growth, whereas a lot of other cities I've been associated with have a natural barrier--a river, a mountain or an ocean--where they can grow no further.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: Yeah, I think that's a very good point. And there's no question that Atlanta was a rail head, and that was absolutely critical. Remember, the South in the early--early and later on the late 19th century did not have a very well-developed rail system compared to what you had in the North...

ROGER: Right.

Mr. KOTKIN: ...and so Atlanta became sort of central--I mean, it was one of the reasons why Sherman made it such a target during the Civil War, was, you know, basically if you hit Atlanta, you really paralyze the rail system of the South.

ROGER: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: Then another really important factor is Atlanta is renowned for having this very strong booster business community, pro-growth, pro-business, even to the point that they made a big deal in the 1960s that it was a city that was too busy to hate.

CONAN: Hmm.

ROGER: Right.

Mr. KOTKIN: And so other Southern cities which were still wrestling with the civil rights movement were sort of transcended, as well. There are others cities that have done that, as well.

But it's interesting; it's an interior city. And, of course, the other thing they did--and this is something that is less geographic as political--is they built a big airport. And Jack Kasarda at the University of North Carolina has talked about aerotropolis, as sort of the city built around an airport, and, of course, Atlanta is a classic case of that.

CONAN: Orlando, Florida, might be another one.

Mr. KOTKIN: Orlando is one; of course, Chicago, which became the major rail head, also became the major airport. I mean, cities that have great airports where you can get to places very easily--Dallas-Ft. Worth--those are tremendous assets. And in the 21st century, they may be more important than location on a river or along an ocean.

ROGER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Hmm. Roger, thanks very much.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: So lines of communication, whatever they may be--water, rail, air--these are significant.

Mr. KOTKIN: These are incredibly important. I remember doing stories when I doing a column in The New York Times about how there were cities that were literally unable to grow because it was difficult to get there. And when a city loses its hub status, for instance, this is a terrible thing. And, of course, if you go back through the 19th century, the cities that--where the railroad went through did very well; the ones that the railroad didn't go through became backwaters. Same thing with the interstate highway. When the interstate highway--if it went through one particular place, it tended to benefit. If it missed and you had to go five, 10, 15 miles on another road, that city didn't do as well.

So--I mean, particularly when you get into the Great Plains and the great heartland of America, the decision, for instance, where to put a railroad, where to put a major highway--it can be absolutely critical.

CONAN: You can even see it in much more intense concentrations in a place like Queens in New York, where you can see the neighborhoods that were laid out along the Long Island Railroad when that went in, and then later, the places developed along the subway lines. And, of course, you get bigger developments on express stop rather than local stops. It's really interesting.

Pikeville, Kentucky, is one Appalachian mountain city that's been willing to literally move mountains in order to expand its economic viability. We're joined now by Donovan Blackburn, the city manager of Pikeville. He's with us from his office there.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DONOVAN BLACKBURN (City Manager, Pikeville, Kentucky): Thanks, Neal. Appreciate it. Glad to be here.

CONAN: So why is Pikeville where it is?

Mr. BLACKBURN: Well, that's a good question. We are a county that was (unintelligible) back in 1821, famous for General Zebulon Pike, who came down the pike, obviously...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLACKBURN: ...and was an explorer and the discoverer of Pike's Peak. And thus, Pikeville was discovered and found. We're a big Civil War town that had a lot of action during, obviously, the Civil War days. And as a matter of fact, James Garfield was--received his brigadier general commission here in the city park.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. BLACKBURN: So we got lot of--rich in history and, like I said, just in history itself; Civil War time along with just the history of how the area's evolved in sense of industrial.

CONAN: Now Pikeville is in a part of Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains, where you have steep hills and narrow valleys. How did the city alleviate that problem, because you get a lot of flooding in those situations?

Mr. BLACKBURN: Well, we have a tremendous amount of flooding. The city of Pine was about 6,500 and we service a service area of about 215,000. We, because of the layout of the Appalachian Mountains and we've very narrow in between the valleys, we had a history of flooding over the years. Back in '57, the town was completely wipes out, and again in '77, which I lived through.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLACKBURN: Back in--I think it was '73, a Dr. Hambley, who was the mayor at the time, came up with a project called the Cut-through Project, and there's where literally a mountain was removed, which was the United States' largest engineering earth-moving project; about 18 million cubic yards of earth was moved. And it's the second largest in the world, second to the Panama Canal.

CONAN: Hmm. Now I understand there's a new earth-moving project under way to create flat land, which is a rarity in that part of the world.

Mr. BLACKBURN: Yeah, it really is. We have issues with growth. Pikeville being the regional hub, we service the banking industry, the economic growth industry for jobs for the entire region. And we done a comprehensive plan last year, and one of the biggest issues that came out of the comprehensive plan was is that we're stifled for growth. We have about on average in the Appalachian Mountains in this part of the country about 16 to 17 percent of the land that's actually developable, and most of that is already developed. And especially in the city of Pikeville, we're just absolutely in land lock.

So since, you know, we look at servicing the region, we're just really hurting for other services that we need to offer in order to sustain and continue the growth pattern that we're currently on.

CONAN: And so you're just going to lop off the mountains and flatten them?

Mr. BLACKBURN: Well, yes and no. What--we're working on a current--a project ourself, the city is. It's a relatively small project, about 10 to 12 acres, to continually support some of the growth in the city. When the Cut-through Project was done, the river was filled in and completely rerouted, and that's where flood protection came in. And we were able to--through that project, we were able to build facilities like the regional medical center, the recent Exposition Center that was just opened a couple of months ago. And because of those facilities, along with several others, providing those services to the region, we also are in need of some additional land mass in order to support some of those facilities, such as an RV park and housing and some of those other items.

But the other project that's going on, which is an airport board project, which is made up between the county and the city, is a project where they're going in in a place called Marion's Branch and they're doing some mountaintop removal there. You know, when you do that type of removing the entire of the mountain, you're just removing the very top of it; anywhere--I've seen as little as 50 feet taken off, as much as 200 feet. But if you're standing in the valley and looking up, it's not really noticeable from the bottom. If you're flying over, obviously you can see where, you know, the land mass is being created.

CONAN: An easy commute to work, but getting home might be more difficult, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Donovan Blackburn, good luck with the project.

Mr. BLACKBURN: Well, I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Donovan Blackburn is the city manager of Pikeville, Kentucky. He joined us from his office there.

Pikeville obviously doing something to reinvent itself and keep its growth alive. So why is your town where it is? How is it adapting to changes in its geographic imperative? (800) 989-8255. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about cities and towns and how they got started in particular places. Why do they remain even after the conditions that led to their development change? Our guest is Joel Kotkin. He's the author of "The City: A Global History." And, of course, you're invited to join us. Why is your city or town where it is, and what's it done or not done to bend with the times? Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Jesse, Jesse calling from San Francisco.

JESSE (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jesse.

JESSE: I lived in a small town in Michigan for quite some time, and I got to explore the countryside of a lot of the Midwest. And a lot of those towns seem to have absolutely no rhyme or reason; no navigable rivers, no extra-good soil, just someone looked around and said, `This place looks good.' It's actually because mine was founded as a college town, not even as a farming town. Someone just said, `This looks like it'll do.' And I was wondering if there was any rationale to--behind a lot of small towns in America.

CONAN: Joel Kotkin.

Mr. KOTKIN: Yeah, that's actually a very interesting observation. You really want to see this even in sharper relief as you go to parts of the Great Plains--I would think of Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota--and you're driving along, you're saying, `Why did anybody start this town?' And what you find is, first of all, there was a kind of land fever that we had as a country, particularly in the late 19th century, where large numbers of people were coming, they wanted land. Of course, farms were smaller, production was much less efficient, so there was a need for a town every few miles. Sometimes there were rail stops. The train had to stop to get water, so every X-number of miles, there had to be a town no matter what.

Towns that--frankly, what's happening is these are the towns that are disappearing. There was a study done--one in North Dakota, one in Iowa--which talked about large numbers of these small towns which are going into non-existence. So very often if a city has no real reason to be there, over time, as technology changes and as people make more choices, they disappear. If you drive along large parts of the Midwest, and most particularly in the Great Plains, you'll go through lots of towns that no longer exist and then you'll run into that all of a sudden is doing very well. And very often it may be the town that had a hospital. There was logic for there to be one town of 10,000, but not 10 towns of 1,000.

CONAN: Hmm.

JESSE: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. KOTKIN: And so you see this change. And this is happening really dramatically in the Plains states.

And his observation is quite good. I mean, you look at towns and there's no reason for it to be there today. There was a time when people shopped in these towns or they bought farm equipment, but now they drive 20 miles and they go to a bigger town where they have a bigger selection. So there are many, many places that are going out of existence.

There's a fascinating Web site done out of Germany called the Shrinking Cities Web site, and they literally have a Web site where they talk about cities that are disappearing. They claim that a huge percentage of cities around the world are actually shrinking. And this is true not just in the United States, but even more so in the UK and in Europe, both Eastern and Western.

CONAN: We have an e-mail on this subject from Charles in Walla Walla, Washington: `Here in arid eastern Washington state, and many other Western states, towns were placed at a distance a horse or mule team could travel in a day. The distance increased with steam engine trains. All that remain are stands of trees about every 20 miles.'

Mr. KOTKIN: That's also an interesting story. I mean, you certainly have these places that were created for some technological reason. I always think about the rail stops in North Dakota because I spend a lot of time up there. But there are--things are put in a place that simply there is no reason. A stagecoach stop would be another thing.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: So now what you sometimes find is, of course, that a city was formed because there was a mine there. And throughout the Western United States, you see all of these old mining towns. Now some of them have become true ghost towns like--I think of Bodie up in the--Northern California. But then, of course, a lot of them have been reborn as ski towns 'cause they happen to be near some pretty nice mountains. So you'll have these towns that lived as mining towns, they had rapid growth, there were kind of like Deadwood in that TV show.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: They grew very rapidly, then they declined and then, all of a sudden, they became recreation centers and are now--in some cases, like places like Aspen, among the most expensive places in North America.

CONAN: And Deadwood, it's gambling at the moment. Anyway, Jesse, thanks very much for the phone call.

JESSE: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: Like many towns in the so-called Rust Belt states of Midwestern America, the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, is leaving behind its old economy and looking for new ways to survive and thrive. Ron Kitchens is CEO of Southwest Michigan First, a regional economic development corporation. He's with us from the studios of member station WMUK in Kalamazoo.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. RON KITCHENS (CEO, Southwest Michigan First): Thank you for having me. Neal.

CONAN: So why is Kalamazoo where it is?

Mr. KITCHENS: Well, we're where we are because we had a river, and around that river agriculture started. The Dutch moved into the area, and we became the capital of celery for the United States and grew celery. And from that became paper mills because of the river and the access to timber. But then the auto industry boomed in Michigan, and we saw auto parts and auto plants come to town. And now none of those are hear anymore, and so Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan has had to reinvent itself and not be dependent any longer on our geography.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So what are you doing to adapt?

Mr. KITCHENS: We really began to look at who we are. And when we look at the region, we have 200,000 college students within an hour and 15 minutes of the community--both the University of Michigan, Michigan State and where I'm sitting today, Western Michigan University--where we've discovered that we want to enter the brain economy. So five years ago, we began a process following a shutdown of a pharmaceutical plant, where we've now seen 24 life science companies. As a community, we've invested $63 million in the pharmaceutical sector. We have a new innovation center, an incubator, that's completely full of 15 brand-new companies that are growing new companies and new innovation into our community. And we've just fully funded a $50 million life science venture fund that's geographic specific.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KITCHENS: We're willing to fund just about any high-quality great life science project, but they've got to move to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to receive that funding.

CONAN: It's interesting. As you pointed out, Kalamazoo is--What?--about halfway between Detroit and Chicago. Earlier in the 20th century--if I could put it that way--it was certainly oriented toward Detroit. Is that orientation changing?

Mr. KITCHENS: It really is changing. You know, we were--we used to have a GM manufacturing plant here that closed five years ago. It's now 70-percent full of new start-up companies growing. And we really look to Chicago. We consider ourself an exurban, you know, extension of the Chicago market, where we have finance, research, life sciences, great minds doing great things. We believe that's our future. Our future isn't in the old economy.

CONAN: Hmm. Interesting. Ron Kitchens, thanks very much.

Mr. KITCHENS: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck to you and Kalamazoo.

Mr. KITCHENS: Great. Thank you, and have a wonderful day.

CONAN: Thanks.

Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, a regional economic development corporation. He joined us from the studios of member station of WMUK in Kalamazoo.

And as we talk about this, Joel Kotkin, you know, Detroit obviously there because, well, it's right along the straits in the Great Lakes. But its economic imperative seems to be dwindling.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, there's no question. If you look at the slowest-growing regions or the areas losing the most jobs and population in the United States, a lot of them are in the state of Michigan. And so what's clearly happened is Michigan is--clearly needs to reinvent itself.

And, you know, I thought that what Ron was saying was very interesting because what really has made Kalamazoo an interesting case study is really a question of will. There was a lot of money that had been made there and, for whatever reason, the people who made money there, a lot of them have said, `We're going to go and we're going to try and turn it around.' Because I remember asking Ron--he used to be in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I met him. And I said, `Well, why are you going to Kalamazoo?' He said, `Well, you know, there's a real attempt to turn that around.'

And that is--again, the key thing is: `How do you, in a sense, essentially deal with the hands that geography and history has dealt you?' and a lot of it is a human response to reinvent yourself in some way. Now when he talks about being an exurb of Chicago--in looking at the new study I'm doing for Inc. magazine on fastest-growing communities, you do find that a lot of exurbs--and these are now no longer suburbs; these are small towns 50, 70, 100, 120 miles from a major metropolitan center. A lot of these are growing very rapidly--Bellingham, Washington, outside of Seattle is an example--and these are places which are really becoming attractive because of cost of living, because of the natural environment. So people may be going back to Kalamazoo because they like the natural environment and maybe the little bit the lack of density and, like, sort of small-town quality of life, which many times they were trying to get away from when they were trying to become a big industrial center.

CONAN: Yeah. And I guess the air's cleaner now that those factories aren't there.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, that's true. You know, sometimes the environment does come back.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an e-mail from Leona in Bourbon, Missouri: `Our town, Bourbon, Missouri, sits by the railroad and Highway 54 southwest of St. Louis. It is legend that it was the spot where the workers used to stash their bourbon while putting through the railroad.' So that's why that town got its town and is where it is.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Darryl, Darryl in Phoenix.

DARRYL (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DARRYL: I actually grew up here in Phoenix, and it's always amazed me the lack of resources that we have, especially water, and how the city has just absolutely flourished and become one of the biggest cities in the nation. I was wondering if your guest could comment on that.

Mr. KOTKIN: Yeah. I'm actually glad you asked that 'cause I did do a study on Phoenix and spent quite a bit of time there. In a lot of ways, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Los Angeles are, in some senses, artificial cities in the sense that they may have had a small agricultural economy--which actually Phoenix did originally with the Native Americans--and they had a minor amount of irrigation. And these are cities that have had to be essentially engineered to exist.

They also didn't have much in the way of energy sources. Los Angeles had some oil, but--and basically, what you needed to do was to basically take water from nearby mountains. The one advantage of the Desert Southwest is that it happens to be located near some very, very high mountains where there's lots of snow. And that was absolutely critical, was taking the water from the Rocky Mountains, in the case of Arizona, taking water from--of course, the city of Los Angeles basically stole the water, as we are constantly reminded by people in Northern California...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: ...from the Sierras, brought it down, which made Los Angeles possible. So you artificially create a city by bringing water, bringing power resources, and that is sort of how your city evolves.

CONAN: But why bother? Why don't you go somewhere more pleasant with more resources?

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, I would argue--I'm sitting here in Pasadena, California, and it's, oh, about 65 degrees and there's snow in the mountains and I think it's pretty pleasant. I mean, basically what you really have is people decided that they wanted to be in warm weather and now this technology allowed people to live in warm weather and, in the case of a Phoenix or a Las Vegas, where the climate is considerably hotter, do it in some comfort. You think of many of the cities that have grown in the United States in the last 30 or 40 years, they were almost unlivable in, you know, in 1890, 1920. Can you imagine Houston in 1920? It would have been close to hell on earth in some ways. And now you have air conditioning, so the fact that it's 104 outside and 90 percent humidity isn't so terrible. So you have those factors. Technology changes the nature of geography in a very, very profound way, changes how close we are to having to live in a particular geography.

In doing "The City," I was very much struck with the fact that many of the earlier cities took place in places that not only had water but were also relatively dry so there weren't a lot of diseases that were incubating there. And so you find in many of the early cities certain characteristics that are common. Things change over time. As new technologies are developed, places become possible. You know, medical--without...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KOTKIN: ...medical advances, you couldn't have had a city at Houston 'cause people would be dropping dead of malaria.

CONAN: Darryl, thanks very much for the call.

DARRYL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about cities and towns and why they're where they are.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you were talking about early cities, Joel Kotkin, and one imperative that lasted for thousands of years in many places: easily defensible places.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, yeah. And, you know, in "The City" I talk about, you know, sacred, safe and busy as being the characteristics of cities, and safety was a huge factor. And that's why many of the cities that developed early, and throughout certain periods of history in particular, were those that were defensible. They had, if you will, a perimeter. Jerusalem, for instance, it was a city built on relatively high mountains. It was, you know, at least somewhat defensible compared to other places. When you had periods of order, like during the Roman Empire, that became less of a factor. But if you go back into the period, for instance, during the early Middle Ages, being defensible, whether you're building a system of walls or being in a place where there were mountains or a place that was difficult to get to, this was very, very critical. Cities like Beijing were developed fundamentally for defensive purposes to protect China from barbarians from the north. So this has also been a major thing. And, of course, many of the cities if you travel in the US, again, particularly in the Great Plains and the West, many of the cities are called fort this or fort that because they--you know, that was the places that were safe.

CONAN: Yeah, or where the Army built a fort, anyway.

Mr. KOTKIN: Right.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Michael in San Antonio. `I come from a small city that would not be much more than a small town if a land grant college had not been established there in 1890, Pullman, Washington. What influence have land grant colleges and universities had on towns and cities?'

Mr. KOTKIN: That's a great question and it has an influence. And, as Ron Kitchens was talking about earlier, this has actually become more important today because with the information economy, with the need to attract people to places who have high degree of skills, no question that the college--the land grant college and the private college is a major factor in cities. And what we're finding in looking at demographics and economic growth is small towns with colleges have become very popular not just for younger people, but have become very popular to what you might call the downshifting boomer. Somebody in their 50s, they want to cash out, they want to get away from the very crowded, congested, expensive, coastal big city, but they want to go to a town where there's some good restaurants and there's cultural affairs. And small college towns are very, very attractive, and you see this all over the country that people are clustering in these sort of small college towns. So historically they played an important role, but a lot of these small college towns historically people went to and then they left. Now with the knowledge economy and the Internet, people actually can come and stay there. And so that's--I think it's--one thing that's become more important is having a college or a university in your town.

CONAN: We've got a couple of interesting questions for you. Can you stay with us over the break?

Mr. KOTKIN: Sure.

CONAN: All right. We're going to take a couple more calls on this after the break. We're talking with Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History." He's with us from the studios of our member station in Pasadena, California, KPCC, and we'll do that.

And then we'll also hear about the American Bar Association's process for rating prospective judges. It gave its highest possible rating today to Samuel Alito, who goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week for his nomination to the United States Supreme Court. And we'll hear why Ted Koppel will soon be calling Discovery home.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, it's your chance to air your comments about NPR News, our programs and our journalism. NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, will be here this time tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And today we're talking with Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History," about why towns are where they are.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Paul, Paul in Stockton, California.

PAUL (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

PAUL: Stockton got its name--actually one of its nicknames was Mudville, "Casey at the Bat" and all of that. Actually Stockton is the fourth-largest seaport in California and got that way as a transshipment point between the larger vessels and the stagecoaches and mule trains that took provisions and supplies up to the miners during the California gold rush. We maintained that position by constructing a deep-water port in 1935 so that now, 85 miles inland from San Francisco, vessels large enough to transit the Panama Canal can be welcomed. And in addition to that, we've maintained the transshipment image by having the two railroads that serve Stockton, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe--both have developed intermodal facilities. That's what changes the type of transportation for the 20- and 40-foot containers that you see all over the freeways and railroads.

CONAN: And, of course, crucially I think the town--the name of the town's baseball--minor-league baseball team is the Mudville Nine.

PAUL: Well, it was up until about three years ago. Now we're back to our original name for the class A team, which is the Stockton Ports.

CONAN: All right, well, and maybe that's more accurate in any case.

But, Joel Kotkin, the highest point--navigable point on a river always seems to have a town.

Mr. KOTKIN: That generally is the case. And now the question is whether that town is as important as it once was. I mean, for instance, as you mentioned earlier Minneapolis, I mean, Minneapolis certainly has the advantage of the Mississippi River, but what drives the Minneapolis economy today is very different. It's much more technology and other commercial activities. So--now what a river can do is it can give a town a good start. And, of course, it also usually provides a kind of nice red-brick old town and then they can turn that into a tourist destination and they can get some yuppies to move in there as well. So, you know, it has a residual benefit.

One thing that's very true about port facilities is they've become--although they're still very important, they've become very, very automated. And so one of the things that, for instance, happened with New Orleans is that the number of jobs actually at the port was nothing like what it used to be. This is true all over the world. If you go to Rotterdam, the great port of Europe, the number of people working in the ports are much less. Though the ports are important, they don't employ as many people because they've become automated.

CONAN: All right. Paul, thanks for the call.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: And finally, we've been talking about all these old models. Is there a new model city? You know, is there something that's being built in the next 50 years that might point the way to the future?

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, I think you're seeing a lot of this all over the country in these new kinds of cities, what I refer to in some other work as new suburbanist communities. In other words, places that are usually on the outskirts of cities that are being planned to be mixed use. They're planned to be attractive to knowledge workers. They tend to be very well-wired. There are some communities in Southern California such as Valencia which are probably in that direction. There's a community that's being built outside of Salt Lake City called Daybreak. And these are sort of mixed use, high tech. They usually have nice recreation and parks and they're really built to attract knowledge workers and to create a community that is as self-sufficient as possible. And I think that's where we're headed is this new era of self-sufficient communities that really are attractive to people, 'cause ultimately in the 21st century the attractive economies are going to be in those places that can get people to move there because they're nice places to live. And so quality of life...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KOTKIN: ...I think, will become more important.

CONAN: Joel Kotkin, thanks very much.

Mr. KOTKIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And we appreciate your fighting traffic--Rose Bowl traffic--to get to the studios today.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, at least I didn't run into any Texas fans who wanted to hijack my car.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. KOTKIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, author of "The City: A Global History." He joined us today from a member station, KPCC, in Pasadena, California, where apparently they're playing football tonight.

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