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Monday, September 29th, 2008

Failure of Ambition

Why did the Midwest fall behind? Why do its big cities continue to lag the top performers nationally? It’s easy to blame this on structural problems, but could the problem simply be a lack of will to compete?

Burgh Diaspora points us at this Time magazine article on Charlotte. As I previously noted about Nashville, Charlotte is a city of high ambition. They look at the boomtowns of the region like Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix and say, “Why not us?” Quoting:

“‘To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition,’ says chamber of commerce head Bob Morgan. ‘We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.’ Civic leaders often compare their city to New York, Chicago, and even London.”

London? Ok, there’s more than a whiff of hubris in this Charlotte story. They claim to be the #2 banking center, but that only includes commercial banking, and is a heckuva lot less true after one of its two champions, Wachovia, got swallowed up by Citigroup. And their claim to having weathered the housing storm successfully is belied by the fact that Charlotte is ground zero for the edge subdivision turned nouveau slum story.

Still, when you compare it to most Midwestern burbs, the difference in sheer ambition is astounding. Charlotte measures itself against London, New York, and the top cities of the world. Most Midwestern cities other than Chicago and Minneapolis would be happy to be known as the “Star of the Rust Belt”. That’s like saying your ambition is to win the losers bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. The Midwest has, to a great extent, even given up on competing. When I talk to my colleagues in India or Argentina, what strikes me is how hungry they are. These are people who’ve gotten a taste of success and are desperate for more. They want to hit it big and take what they see as their rightful place in the new world order – and they are willing to kill themselves to get there. The most astounding thing to me is the work ethic in India. Here’s a place where it is still dotcom 1999. Anybody on my team there could literally walk across the street for a 30-50% bump. But instead they are in the office Saturdays and Sundays, killing themselves to hit the deadline. Places like Charlotte, Nashville, etc. have a bit of that same attitude. The Midwest, by contrast, sits, as Richard Longworth put it so well of Cleveland, “sour and crumbling”, unable to even muster the will to understand the world it is in, much less complete in it.

Charlotte gets it. As their leaders say, “Charlotte’s nine FORTUNE 500 companies help run the city, not only by writing checks–Bank of America and Wachovia have pledged $15 million apiece to build new cultural centers–but also by helping to write plans. ‘We’re a pro-business city like none I’ve ever seen,’ says Center City Partners head Michael Smith. ‘It’s true about Southern hospitality, but there’s a real hunger here.’ It can be jarring to hear Charlotte’s power brokers explain that it’s important to improve their city not for its own sake but for the sake of its businesses, which need high-quality culture to attract high-quality talent. “

And “While the rest of the country is sinking, Charlotte is soaring, with 28 construction cranes downtown. It’s got the nation’s least-battered metropolitan-housing market, lowest office-vacancy rates and fastest-growing airport. It hosts the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Its center-city population has doubled since 2000, and its light-rail system, just a year old, is already approaching its ridership goal for 2025. Meanwhile, ribbon-cuttings are scheduled for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, three museums, a theater and an African-American cultural center by 2010.”

Again, some of the stories are oversold, but the cumulative effect is real. I’ve been known as a rail skeptic, but regardless, when you decide to do something, do it. Not one comparable city in the Midwest has cranked out a rail system while Charlotte and Nashville put theirs into operation and started remaking their cities to take advantage of them. And a little hubris isn’t bad, when it motivates you to try to live up to your own big talk. In the Midwest, all we ever here from smaller cities is how they can’t compete with San Francisco or New York and have to get by on table scraps. Yet in Charlotte it seems every other person is a transplant from the Northeast. They figured out that they can build an offering that is capable of attracting the right kind of person – if they show a civic ambition that matches the personal ambitions of their target audience.

There’s still room in the club. There is an opportunity out there for one of the smaller Midwest cities to step up and claim their place at the table. But right now it looks like only Chicago and Minneapolis wants it. It’s the parable of the talents, played out in real life. Will anyone else step up? Only time will tell.

PS: One of the top sources of migrants to Charlotte: the Rust Belt.

18 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Charlotte

18 Responses to “Failure of Ambition”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A lack of ambition is exactly what besets Indianapolis, though the city has many fine qualities that do not bear redundant enumeration here. But anytime anyone attempts to offer constructive criticism, such as to NIMBYIST neighborhood groups opposing density, the rah-rah chamber of commerce crowd tries to shout it down.
    Quick: during Athens’ heyday, which city was “a great place to raise a family?”
    Indy doesn’t have to try to be Athens or London, but Boilermakers, Hoosiers, Cardinals, Bulldogs, and the belligerent Irish wouldn’t be making their way to the coasts and southern latitudes every spring if there were more a vibe of ambition, instead of complacency. Where’s the civic pride in the much-trumpeted “at least we’re not Detroit or Cleveland” attitude or the “we’ve got a great Children’s Museum and a new stadium” attitude? Would you ever hear that sort of thing in Chicago? Indy’s most fervent boosters sell it as a “place to settle down” and not a place to make it.
    Indy’s most fervent boosters tell us not to strive, but that everything is hunky-dory, which is not conducive to distinction or even growth.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Charlotte might not be so strong after the current banking crisis subsides. Wachovia (employs 20,000 in CLT) just purchased by Citicorp.

    Also, if USAir does not survive, the “fastest growing airport” stops growing.

    Too much, too fast in CLT.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nashville’s rail attracts a few hundred riders/day and needs gov susbidy to continue…bet it goes away soon.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I grew up in the Detroit area and I had to move for many reasons, among them the lack of vision, the mistrust of thought, few with ambition.

    Dan Staley

  5. Dave Reid says:

    Ambition is good and it is great to see Charlotte’s light rail line going well. Further it appears they managed the zoning along the line properly (upzoned near all stations). That said the city itself all be it growing really lack uniqueness which will be harder for them to manufacture.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “…they are in the office Saturdays and Sundays, killing themselves…”

    THAT sounds like something to aspire to.

  7. thundermutt says:

    1. I agree with anon 2:42. I work to live, not live to work. There is far more to a good life well-lived than more and bigger of everything.

    2. To play my broken record once again…never discount climate.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Of course climate plays a role in the attractiveness of the Sunbelt. I just refuse to use that as an excuse as to why the Midwest can’t compete. Everybody has their handicaps.

    Regarding the hard work remark, anon, that’s certainly fine, but in a globalized world where people who are highly educated and motivated, but only a fraction of the cost of Americans, are willing to do that, then you can predict the results that will ensue. Hard work is only one part of it of course. It is about working smart, setting the ambition, etc. And so much of the new economy mantra of the creative class is really about play as much as work. But the clock punching attitude of the Midwest generally is a key barrier to effectively competing in the new world.

  9. Jefferey says:

    Not just clock-punching but the entrepeneurial spirit is probably missing, or less than it was.

    Also, from what I get the Creative Class concept is sort of a mix of work and play, or integration of the two.

  10. thundermutt says:

    I also think that Midwestern cities dominated by government, healthcare, and unionized manufacturing (the mid-sized state capitals you say are competing in the runner-up JV bracket, plus Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Louisville) tend to breed that “clock-punching” spirit.

    Those industries also have a tendency to be organized in “silos” around a legacy operating system which may or may not be right for their new competitive setting.

    (I really do have more to say than “it’s the weather”.)

    anon 10:49, some of us have already been through the striving years and have a broader perspective on life. You can choose to be connected to work 24/7…or not. I have friends, a home, kids, a dog, and I choose to be fully present in my moments with them.

    Life in Indianapolis reinforces the things in life other than work that you see as “not conducive to distinction or even growth”…so you’re right. But that might just represent Indianapolis being the best Indianapolis it can be.

  11. Michael Heneghan says:

    Weather certainly hasn’t been a factor for Minneapolis or Chicago being more successful than Indy. Notice all the negative comments from others on Charlotte–their rail line will fail, their banks are going down, etc. This kind of attitude seems to prevail in Indy: well, we’re doing okay compared to the other average cities in the region. We’d rather drag Charlotte down to our level than try to compete with it.
    And yes, you want to balance hard work with play, but a successful city/country will always have those that are ambitious and working hard, trying to get ahead, so that their city-business-individual can also get ahead.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Get rid of the Blue Laws, Eric Miller and his ilk, and you are on the right start to being competitive. Cummings, Lilly and others are trying, but the state house insn’t listening. Also get rid of the beer baron monopolistic laws.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I think Indy has had some great vision up until the last few years.
    I am a little scare we now have a mayor that doesn’t have any vision at all.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Also, I think if you thin Lilly is a company with vision you are sadly mistaken.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Despite all it’s “ambition,” Charlotte is reeling from the effects of the Citi takeover of Wachovia. The new Wachovia office tower and the associated cultural center in City Center may be jeopardy. I’d rather have steady, long term growth than boom-bust cycles. Think oak tree versus weed…

  16. Anonymous says:

    Growth for the sake of growth is not healthy. Charlotte is likely to experience the same type of pain that Houston, Dallas and Denver faced in their own prior crisis.

    The healthy metro’s in this region will come out of this current downturn in even stronger position. That does not mean they will become ‘boom towns’ like Charlotte; but the growth for a few will be acclerated.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    A lot of what you tout as progress in Charlotte is nothing more than the urban renewal that destroyed New York after World War Two. Cultural centers, big banks, and the other great attractions you tout are at best a late stage of development.

    For example, the largest cultural center built in New York, Lincoln Center, caused so much blight that Jane Jacobs described how only the homeless ever venture there. The affluence of the Upper West Side has only encroached on the area literally this decade, forty years after the center was built, and long after virtually every part of Manhattan west of Central Park gentrified.

    Likewise, NIMBYism is a symptom of stagnation, not the cause. Boomtowns have few reasons for NIMBYism to succeed. Community ties are weak, because most people have just moved in. The market is trending up, so people support its excesses. Developers are new, so they have had little time to become corrupt. Social divisions haven’t yet had time to fossilize. As places mature, they develop community-developer tensions, as Los Angeles did in past decades and as Houston is doing now.

    Low taxes could be one reason Charlotte’s doing well. New York and Chicago need to spend money on education. The Sunbelt doesn’t care about such frivolities, so it can keep property taxes low. Indeed, Los Angeles is still developing quickly; virtually all new development is in the Inland Empire, but the older Northeastern cities don’t have that kind of growth even in their exurbs.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I moved from St. Louis to Charlotte last year, quite the Rustbelt-to-Sunbelt adjustment. Things just happen faster here, good and bad. Development quickly responded to light rail, but it’s perhaps the least inclusive TOD model in the nation right now.

    Charlotte is a city quickly inverting to an affluent core of “older” teardown/rehab/infill areas surrounded by a vast ring of struggling sprawl built anywhere from 1950 to today. Middle suburbia is quickly filtering, while new suburbia stalls out.

    The only reason home prices have fallen the least of any major metro in Charlotte is its transfer of wealth from more expensive markets. But while more affluent transplants (NE, CA, FL) have thought nothing of dropping a half-million on an in-town abode, the working class here struggles to purchase or keep homes well under the national median in the outer rings.

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