Thursday, April 30th, 2009
In a previous posting on innovation, I talked about how coming up with innovative new ideas is surprisingly easy. It is actually trying to do them that is hard. I pointed out many of the structural barriers to this, most of which lie in the realm of organizational dynamics.
One of the problems is what I call the “paradox of success”. That is, it is harder for someone, be it an individual or company, to do something new and different to the extent that what they are currently doing is already successful. This actually seems, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, prima facie rational. The investment and level of risk one takes on by giving up something that is already working is much higher than giving up on something that’s failing. The probability weighted R might be the same, but the I is much different between those situations in an ROI calculation.
It comes as no surprise to me to hear entrepreneurs talk about starting a business after losing a job or going bankrupt. That lowers the risk threshold to the new dramatically. If you have to quit a six figure job to launch an uncertain new business, that’s a much more high stakes move. Similarly, I’m not surprised to hear people who found religion to say that they turned to Jesus after they “hit rock bottom”.
However, there is an underlying assumption about this analysis, namely that the future will more or less resemble the present and past. If that assumption is wrong, then the whole thing can break down. The subprime mortgage business seemed like a good one until it hit a wall. If you were in the vulnerable sub-sector of the housing industry, it might have made more sense to actually get out early and establish yourself in something new before you and everyone found yourself on the street. But I see little evidence much of this happened, whether that be in traders or real estate agents.
This assumption that the future resembles the past or that we can extrapolate trends seems to be buried deep in the human psyche. I noted before how this was one of the classic errors Dietrich Dörner identified in how people fail at complex problems. It’s always dicey to talk evolution. You can always gin up a plausible sounding evolutionary rationale for a behavior. But it does strike me that biologically there might in fact be good reason to favor having this assumption genetically embedded. The primitive world was in fact a fairly static, slowly changing system. Which animals are dangerous or not, what foods are safe or poisonous, the danger of fire and ice, etc. – all of these things it is good to learn fast and learn once. We heated our house with a wood stove growing up. One time as I kid a touched it burned my hand good. After that, I was much more careful around it. Why would I assume that somehow a hot stove wouldn’t burn me next time? Indeed, behaviors like this seem to get so ingrained in us that even when they stop giving us the results we want, we keep on trying them anyway.
David Hume famously refuted the idea that there is any logic at all in the concept of the future resembling the past. We believe it reflexively, but there is actually no logical reason to even believe the laws of nature are constant. But this appears to be unquestioned. This general notion is programmed into us a priori. I believe it is literally bred into the species.
The problem is that the modern economy is not a stable, slow changing system and it is becoming increasingly less so with time. It is a different class of phenomena than those with which the human species evolved. In this environment, the logic of risk is different. In a rapidly changing environment, the safe course can actually be the more dangerous one. A company that is too laser focused on its market could miss a fundamental shift that leaves it high and dry. The skills that command a premium today might be obsolete tomorrow, or suddenly tradeable in the global market leaving you competing for a job with someone in India making a fraction of the onshore wage.
We’ve seen many business models begin to falter. Industries as diverse as newspapers, land line telephones, and IT services have been radically upended in just the last few years. Creative destruction is operating at a speed heretofore unknown. In this environment it is most likely a matter of when, not if, the way things you are doing them today will be not just not as successful as they used to be, but completely unsuccessful. If you aren’t prepared, this could be catastrophic.
That’s why innovation and change aren’t just empty buzzwords. They are an imperative. We have to use our brains and intellectually realize that the safe course isn’t as safe as it might appear, overcome our inborn predisposition to assume a static world, and look at the risk situation rationally. We have to overcome our instincts.
Frankly, this world isn’t going to be pleasant for most of us, myself included. I don’t like uncertainty about the future any more than the next person. But that is the world that we are going to be in. The one thing we can be certain of is that things are very likely to change significantly in the future. We don’t now how much, when, or to what, but we have to be ready for it.
I think this means a few things. One, overly focused solutions, while en vogue in some B-school theory, is heavily vulnerable to niche exhaustion. Overspecialization leads to death. So unless your plan is to get in and get out, it’s risky. You at least need to be constantly examining when the likely end date is. Two, that means to increase your chances of having long term staying power, you should be placing some bets on the new, and probably some diverse bets, spreading some money around the table instead of piling on the chips on Red 14. I have a friend who owns a software company. The keep building small software as a service applications and seeing whether they get take-up. They idea is to try a lot of different things and see which one hits rather than putting too much investment in one big thing. Given the low cost of entry for web applications today, this is a smart move. And three, from and individual perspective, we should be wary of overspecializing even if that is what the market demands. At least to some extent, we should remain broad as well as deep. This is the famous “T shaped” person model. Someone with deep expertise today, but a base in many things. Today’s hot skill isn’t going to stay that way forever.
What does this mean for cities? Firstly, cities themselves have to eat the dog food. You can’t target being an innovation hub for business if your civic strategy is the status quo or rooted in totally traditional thinking. Cities too need to be spreading some bets around the table, trying new things, etc. This is extremely difficult to do in a political environment, which is why good leadership in a community is so important. You need leaders to make the case for change. By the way, this applies as much to cities that are succeeding today as it does to those who are struggling. Even more so perhaps, since struggling cities probably at some level know they need to try something different while successful cities can delude themselves that they have it all figured out. Secondly, cities need to look at how they can create a culture of innovation that permeates the people and businesses that locate there. Rather than targeting a few sectors that appear to be hot for innovation, the real answer is how to infuse innovation and a forward thinking view into everything we do.
By the way, this does not mean pitching what we do today away wholesale. But it does mean a willingness to try new things, and a willingness to see some of them fail, which is inevitable. That’s a tall order. But if you can get there, I’m convinced it will pay big rewards down the road.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
“I am 19 years old and have worked in the East Chicago Inland Steel plant for over a year now… my family has worked in this mill for 3 generations and this video pays tribute to those that have worked here and all steel workers everywhere…Stay safe guys!” – v8stangugy, commenting on this video
If you want to understand the industrial Midwest, this four minute film by East Chicago artist Thomas Frank and the quotes above tell you everything you need to know. Last I looked this video only had 500 views. It should have more like 500,000. I think it’s as good as the original music video. Please pass it along. If the embedded video doesn’t show up for you, click this link.
Normally I’d add extensive commentary, but this video speaks for itself.
Thomas also runs a blog you might want to read.
Sunday, April 26th, 2009
TED Talks are all the rage these days. This one has been making the rounds, but if you haven’t seen it, I suggest watching as it is only six minutes long. Jacek Utko talks about how how he dramatically boosted newspaper circulation simply through a re-design (if the embedded video doesn’t show for you, click this link):
This video is a testament to the power of design. While there has certainly been a fetishization of “design” in recent years, I don’t think there is any doubt that quality of design can play a huge role in the success or failure of something. For example, today it is difficult to differentiate many products based on features and functions. Design is the distinguishing element and can command a premium price in the market. Apple provides the best common example of this today. Their products not only look good, but their interaction design is top notch making them supremely easy to use and inspirational to those who purchase them.
It should come as no surprise that design has whole-heartedly been embraced in many cities. This is particularly manifest in the urge to commission international “starchitects” to design major civic structures. Cities are desperate for the so-called “Bilbao effect” to rejuvenate their image and their neighborhoods. This has led to a dramatic upgrading of the civic infrastructure in many cities if nothing else, and the exposure of many to the entire idea of quality architecture for the first time. This has its downsides to be sure, which I’ll cover in a future posting, but I think has generally been a positive.
However, there are some limits to this as applied to cities. Two things jump quickly to mind:
- Good design can’t fix a broken business model. It would be tempting to think that if we simply redesigned our newspapers, print journalism’s problems would be solved. It is notable that the example above is in Eastern Europe, not the United States where the migration to on-line and obsolete business and journalism models could mean the virtual disappearance of the printed newspaper in short order. Most US papers could certainly stand a make over, but I don’t think re-design and nothing else is the answer. Similarly for cities, if you are economically failing, design as defined by the newspaper example can be part of the solution, but not the entire solution.
- Design today is overly concerned with the physical appearance and functionality of products. It is notable that Burnham and Bennett of “Plan of Chicago” fame were both architects. Today it is architects who are often asked to re-imagine the urban fabric. But while they might be able to create attractive renderings, why would we expect people whose training and experience is focused on buildings and spaces to be able to somehow recreate and re-imagine the city or neighborhood as a whole? There are no doubt many architects that do have this skill, but again, architecture is only a piece of the puzzle.
Cities are very different from iPods, buildings, streets, etc. Those are part of the city, but they aren’t the city.
Here are some other differences between a city and a typical design project:
- The lack of top-down control. Note with our newspaper designer, the top guy gave him authority to redesign it, and he was able to do what he liked. In a city, however, while there may be a mayor, decisions about even the built environment take place in a political process with many stakeholders.
- Diversity vs. unity. As the above implies, a product, building, etc. expresses a unity, but cities are made up of a vast number of residents, businesses, visitors, associations and relationships, many of which relate only tangentially and which often have goals and objectives that are in conflict. I’ve said before that it is actually this conflict which creates the power of the city. A city that expressed too much of a design unity would be a failure, no matter how much short term economic success it might have. A city is a sort of permeable container in which people create their own lives and meanings. This is a very different sort of beast than most design problems. Designers and planners tend to dislike things that get in the way of their vision. Jacek Utko suggests empowering designers. But empowering people who constitutionally don’t like it when other people get in the way of their visions can be a dangerous thing.
- The limitations of human control. In line with the above, design in an urban context is an inherently more uncertain proposition. As I noted previously when speaking of the errors that have plagued so much urban design and planning, our ability to shape the outcome in a complex system is much less than in a more “cause and effect” type situation. Designers, architects, and engineers create buildings, products, newspapers, etc. and they come out pretty much the way they are intended. Even so, many of them fail to achieve their desired effects. How much more so in a very complex, living environment like a city?
True urban design, shaping our cities to achieve its civic aspirations and allow its citizens to create the successful lives for themselves that they want, is a very different problem than what has traditionally been called design, or even urban design. Wikipedia says “Urban design concerns the arrangement, appearance and functionality of towns and cities, and in particular the shaping and uses of urban public spaces” and treats the discipline as a subset of architecture. But I think this is misses the point of what we should look for.
It also highlights that the urban environment is often thought of in terms of discrete systems, designed by specialist practitioners. Some of these are:
- Land use (urban planning)
- Transportation (urban planning, architecture, and engineering)
- Public spaces (architecture)
- Buildings (architecture)
- Education (teachers)
- Parks and recreation (urban planning)
- Population (demographers)
- Jobs and economic growth (economic development)
- Talent attraction (miscelleneous)
- Arts and culture (artists, architects, designers)
- Branding (tourism marketing)
- Tourism and conventions (tourism marketing)
- Fiscal policy (politicians)
- Housing (advcoates, individuals, companies, politicians)
- Heathcare (private sector health professionals, governments)
The list could conceivably go on. These are all facets of making up a city, but they aren’t the city itself. Thinking about the city requires a holistic view that considers all of these, their relationships, their interactions. It’s requires not just depth, but breadth. Thinking about urban design and planning as discrete systems is like thinking of a company as made up of marketing, sales, finance, HR, manufacturing, procurement, R&D, etc. Those are all important and critical functions, but they need to work in concert to support a strategy and viable business model to make money. Having the best finance department in the world means nothing if your business model is broken or your company is paralyzed by inter-departmental infighting.
What we need today is a new discipline of urban design, one that is urban design properly so called, rooted in the following principles.
- The need to understand a city and its civic aspirations, and the understanding that cities, ultimately, are about people.
- A holistic, interdisciplinary view of what is needed to achieve them. It isn’t about any one of the things above, it’s about all of them. It’s about understanding true urban function. It’s bringing a strategic mindset to marshal of them around the aspirations.
- A rich awareness of the complexity of the city and the limitations of design in shaping a complex human society, and the reality of what we can achieve. This includes a healthy dose of humility.
- The need for both top down leadership and bottoms up participation. (This will be the subject of a future posting).
- Confidence in the power of design to make a difference in our cities, which I firmly believe that it can.
- The rallying of expertise in specific domains to translate this into their domain, and to contribute their own unique insights into the result.
Traditional urban design and architecture is of supreme importance, but it is only part of what we need to bring to bear on the problem.
Does this sound familiar? It should. It is what I’ve been talking about and grasping at on this blog for the past 2 1/2 years.
We’re at the dawn of a new era. It is an era of a globalized, networked world and rapid change in many domains and disciplines. And I don’t think we know where this thing is going to take us. Anybody who thinks they’ve got it figured out is kidding themselves.
To be successful in the 21st century will require a very different way of operating than it did in the 20th. We need new techniques and new approaches to problems. This true discipline of urban design is one of them. In line with humility, I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But hopefully I’m at least asking and thinking about some of the right questions.
I’ve honestly been amazed at the readership I’ve managed to gather on this blog. Of course I don’t even know who most of them are. Isn’t the internet wonderful? But I know it includes senior politicians, academics, journalists, architects and designers, economic development folks, students, artists, activists, and many more. I’ve sometimes met and talked with them through the blog. And it is clear that people understand that we’re in a new world, and they are, like all of us, are trying to figure it out. I’m consistently impressed with the seriousness and thoughtfulness of those I come in contact with. It gives me hope and confidence in our future. So a special thanks to all of you, and especially those who have made this one of the most heavily commented urbanist blogs out there, and have helped in shaping and developing both my own thinking and I’m sure those of others about this space.
Who knows where this journey will take me, will take us, will take our cities. But I’m confident that, if we embrace and shape the future, through the power of true urban design among other things, that we can have a future even brighter than our past. I’ve got confidence in America, in the Midwest, in our cities, in our people. I hope you do you. Thank you for coming along on this ride with me.
Saturday, April 25th, 2009
The Christian Science Monitor running a piece on which cities will recover first from the recession (hat tip Return to Pittsburgh). Here is their map:
In tabular form, the cities I cover (by year of recovery, then alphabetic) and the year they are expected to reach their old peak employment levels:
- 2009-2010 – Indianapolis
- 2011 – Columbus
- 2012 – Chicago
- 2012 – Cincinnati
- 2012 – Kansas City
- 2012 – Twin Cities
- 2013-2014 – Louisville
- 2013-2014 – Milwaukee
- 2013-2014 – St. Louis
- Post 2014- Cleveland
- Post 2014 – Detroit
Charlotte debates whether newcomers are a burden or boon. In the short run, the influx of newcomers has really driven up unemployment. In the long term, it is probably good. Here’s an interesting quote:
“Two years ago, James and Cynthia Kwolyk put their Connecticut home on the market. Their goal: Move to Charlotte with its milder weather and nearby relatives.
“Then their house sat, waiting for a buyer. The family still moved – even though the house didn’t sell for 11/2 years, and they had to drop the price $100,000.
“Charlotte owes much of its prosperity to newcomers willing to pull up stakes and gamble on opportunity here.”
Again, how many people do you know that have pulled up stakes and moved to a Midwest city in search of opportunity? That’s the aspiration they should have, however. Until your town is seen as an opportunity city, a place people will decide to plant their flag and seek their fortune without some pre-existing connection, then it isn’t truly a healthy or thriving place.
It looks like Flint, Michigan is signing on to the shrinkage program. Big coverage in the New York Times. Thanks to a reader for sending me this one. “Dozens of proposals have been floated over the years to slow this city’s endless decline. Now another idea is gaining support: speed it up. Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.”
This is adopting the Youngstown strategy. This has to be part of the equation for a number of struggling manufacturing cities, including some big ones like Detroit. I would love to see the federal government put some money behind this. Shrinking your fixed cost base is incredibly difficult and painful. Scale works miracles on the way up – and on the way down. I think in return for abandoning the pretense of renewed growth and signing onto an aggressive shrinkage program to put a city back on a sustainable path, the feds should be willing to help fund the change program.
On a related note, Richard Longworth speaks in Muncie of how small Midwestern cities are dying.
The Wall Street Journal had a great article this week called “Spain’s Bullet Trains Change a Nation – and Fast“. It is must reading. I am no fan of boondoggles. There are any number of projects I’ve argued against on this blog, including, for example, light rail in smaller cities. But I think we ought to take a hard look at high speed in the Midwest. For my thoughts, please see my “High Speed Rail” posting.
Can high speed rail be justified purely on an income statement basis? No. There is no way it will ever pay its capital and operating costs. But you know what, I think it is debatable whether or not passenger rail ever made money in the US, even back in the 19th century. Heck, rail period often had major government backing, such as federal land concessions. Would we have been better off as a country without it? I don’t think so. I think there are opportunities in the Midwest to link smaller cities with Chicago to potentially enable some game changing applications. There’s no slam dunk on it, but it certainly warrants serious study.
President Obama has made HSR a signature element of his transportation program. However, I have a big fear that a Midwest “high speed” system will in fact be just warmed over conventional rail at 110MPH. Amtrak on steroids if you will. It is certainly not the system in Spain, which I have personally ridden and which is fantastic. I am very concerned that an inferior system labeled as “high speed” will only end up ruining the high speed rail in the United States.
Travel dip slams midsized airports. This affects a number of Midwest cities.
Richard Morrill over at New Geography does some interesting graphs of tax burden by state.
Richard Layman talks about transit and travel demand management.
Rem Koolhaas calls this the “end of a period“.
Congrats to Renee over at Feed Me Drink Me for her profile in the Indianapolis Star. She urges diners to demand excellence. Forget food for a minute, there’s a huge lesson in her prescription for the whole Midwest.
The Atlantic Monthly runs an unflattering story about Kansas City’s new arena.
And here’s a hilarious fake sign (not in Chicago, but via the CTA Tattler):
Presumably a commentary on the MTA “doomsday” in New York.
Top CVG job vacant six months (Enquirer)
College of Creative Studies gambles $136 million on Argonaut Building (Detroit News)
Auto storms my sink Michigan (Nolan Finley @ Detroit News)
Is inadequate management Indiana’s problem? (Morton Marcus)
Long time director at Nelson-Atkins Museum to retire (KC Star)
No recession in Louisville (backstage.com)
Louisville plays waiting game for top retail stores (C-J)
Block ‘E’ might stand for ‘emptier’ (Star-Tribune via a reader in Indianapolis)
Friday, April 24th, 2009
This is a follow-up to my posting on Cleveland titled, “What’s Wrong?“. I said I would post back in a few days if anyone in Cleveland noticed it, and it appears they did. I got a lot of hits from there. So thanks for reading, and Cleveland passes the test with flying colors.
This post also generated a lot of reader comments. One thing I continue to be pleased and honestly surprised at about this blog is the large numbers of comments it generates, and the general high level of quality and thoughtfulness that people display. I can’t name another urbanist blog that generates this level of discussion. So thanks so much to everyone for their contributions and for being so serious and thoughtful. If you read this through a reader or email, please do check the articles for comments if you haven’t, since there’s a lot of good stuff in there. I often find my own thinking enhanced by what people say. Contributions welcome. I do reserve the right to delete spam, personal attacks, or things of that nature.
However, dissent is more than welcome – in fact, encouraged. You can feel free to disagree with me as strongly as you like, but please put some thought and reasoning into it.
In that light, I’d like to lead off by re-posting a comment on the What’s Wrong article from Carin Rockind. She is the Vice President of Marketing at TeamNEO. Since my article was a bit down on Cleveland, I feel it is only fair to share her dissenting but graceful note in full.
Sorry you felt the need to rip on a great city that you’ve never even visited. It really is fabulous, with the second largest theatre district outside of NYC, one of the world’s best orchestras, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Iron Chef Michael Symon restaurants, and a $170 billion diversifying economy. In fact, the region is home to 40% of all Fortune 500 companies, boasts the nation’s top polymers and materials science, NASA Glenn research center, one-of-a-kind fuel cell prototyping, and an international medical imaging hub.
Here’s the thing – Northeast Ohio was out of the pro-active business attraction game for a long time. So we’re behind, and blogs like this put Cleveland unfairly in a poor light. SO, we need to go above and beyond the typical messaging and marketing (ie: what you called “gimmick”) to grab attention, change perception and begin to build relationships with industry influencers and decision makers.
Fortunately, the tactics are working.
Team NEO has attracted 195 new qualified business opportunities since we began focusing on business attraction in January, 2007. In the past 2 years, we’ve attracted 23 new companies, 2200 new jobs worth $76 million in new annual payroll, which adds nearly $150 million new annual economic benefit to the region. Since Team NEO’s annual budget is only $3 million, we think that’s a pretty good return on investment – and proof that Team NEO, regional economic development and CLEVELAND PLUS are working.
So please, give us a break. And if you want to talk about Cleveland, I invite you to come tour it. We’d love to welcome you here and show you around.
ps – I love Indy, and think the city has transformed well. However, for running an international business, give Cleveland a bit more credit – we have more Fortune 500 companies and more direct flights to major markets than Indy, making it easier to operate from here. Not a slam against Indy, just a fact about Cleveland. Rock on Cleveland Plus!!
Thanks for your contribution. And by the way, good luck in your quest to grow Cleveland’s economy. While obviously cities like Cleveland, Indy, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are going to compete on deals, I don’t believe we live in a zero sum world. A rising tide does lift all boats. So often Midwestern cities and states engage in beggar thy neighbor poaching of business and such when what is really needed is to change the economic climate of the Midwest as a whole and thus the shared perception that the entire region that holds it back. This is what Longworth has tirelessly advocated and I agree with it completely. Logically, we need to find some basis of “coopetition” so that occasional battles over deals don’t preclude cross-regional cooperation on issues of mutual interest.
Moving on, a few people suggested that Cleveland is more like Detroit than I credited. “John” says:
I don’t think Cleveland is as different from Detroit as you make it out to be. Cleveland was – and is – highly tied in with the automobile industry. The steel industry, and industry in general, have also tanked, leaving a large work-force with no jobs and no other skills. This led to social and physical decay and just creates a cycle that’s tough to break out of.
And “pete-rock” adds:
I know Detroit very well, having grown up there. I visit 1-2 times a year. I’ve only been to Cleveland 2 or 3 times, but it has always struck me as being very similar to Detroit in its built environment and its local culture. I think that the only real difference between Detroit and Cleveland was the diversity of the manufacturing sector — Detroit was/is very auto-dominant, while Cleveland’s manufacturing base was a little broader. Still, both suffered the same decline.
To me, there are three overarching factors that led to the decline of both cities. The first is poor race relations. Detroit and Cleveland both had dynamic/charismatic/controversial black mayors who entered City Hall at the same time the wheels were coming off the industrial sector (the late ’60s and early ’70s). Coleman Young and Carl Stokes (like many first-generation African-American politicians) ran on an “it’s our turn” platform that was especially alienating to the white-ethnic middle class, largely because African-Americans had never really been a part of the power or establishment structure prior to their elections. And neither mayor was willing or able to be inclusive in their governance once in office; in fact, I don’t believe either was effective in governing (and I say this as an African-American). I believe that Young and Stokes were the impetus that gave the white-ethnic middle class the reason to not only move from the city, but to eradicate it from their consciousness. Yes — eradicate it from their consciousness. Those who fled for the burbs in both cities psychologically and emotionally abandoned them. Does any city have worse city-suburban relations than these two? (As an aside, I think the one thing that kept Chicago from falling like Detroit and Cleveland was the leadership of Richard J. Daley and the political Machine. Chicago held onto its white-ethnic middle class far longer than either Detroit or Cleveland, because that group had confidence in their leadership. I think that enabled Chicago to make its transition to globalization much easier.)
This generated quite a bit of follow-up as you can imagine. One thing I’d like to note about Chicago is that it’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, was definitely competent and also made a lot of efforts to be inclusive in his administration, though many white politicians, to their discredit, refused to join in. The current Mayor Daley is also made a major point of being inclusive in his governance of the city. Chicago remains heavily segregated to be sure and not without its challenges in race relations, but there are leaders of all races in many prominent positions, often heavily supported by Daley. I wasn’t living there at the time, but my understanding is that Daley was one of the few white politicians who endorsed Harold Washington for mayor, after originally losing to him in the primary. I’ve long said that you can tell a lot about a city simply by looking at its race relations and whether its black community shares in city’s overall civic success.
“Joe P” disputes the racial angle:
Race is not the issue. It’s a problem like it is in most places, but like other cities dealing huge losses – those losses create more loss. It’s a horrible cycle to be in.
It comes down to jobs which creates growth/migration which creates more growth and migration.
Some suggest that the “company town” mindset hurts Cleveland. Per Anonymous 9:52
I agree that culture explains a lot of what is happening (or not happening) in Cleveland. It was a factory town for a long, long time and people here are used to being rewarded for doing what the boss tells them to and being punished for running off to chase their own idea. Cleveland also had a sizable influx of population from Appalachia in earlier decades that brought and has maintained an impact on its culture. Many of the negative stereotypes of Appalachian thinking hold true here–fear and suspicion of outsiders and new ideas, resentment of those who do well, low expectations and a chronic pattern of short-term thinking. Cleveland has an abundance of things that make it a great place to live and that give it the potential to really thrive but people here are the last ones to see that or believe that it could be true.
Michael Dylan Brennan has more in this vein:
For whatever reason, Cleveland is very provincial. There are a lot of people here who distrust outsiders and their ideas. I don’t mean that in xenophobic terms. I mean that Cleveland tends to look within instead of globally. As it is, Clevelanders who think they are thinking expansively still aren’t looking beyond Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, as described in the above article. Most people living in the Cleveland metropolitan area act as if they feel better or different or separate from even the rest of Ohio. And while I’ve made my home here since 1993, whenever I meet someone new, the first thing they ask me is where did I grow up. If I tell them I grew up elsewhere, its seems like I’ve already lowered myself in their esteem.
It reminds me a bit of the Louisville/Cincy thing where the first thing people ask you is “Where did you go to high school?” To me this is indicative of low in-migration rates. There’s an inbuilt assumption you must be from there. It also seems to indicate that the high school (or in Cleveland’s case, what part of town you are from) is an important social marker.
Jim Russell, quoted in the original article, chimes in as a follow-up to another post to point out that Cleveland, unlike places such as Indianapolis or Minneapolis, has a lot of in-state competition.
“Cleveland on the other hand has to compete with Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown, not to mention its own suburbs just like any other city. This makes it harder to recruit people and businesses.”
The above comment from John really resonates with my own observations. Cleveland’s perception of other cities as competition starts with its Ohio experience. Since states are the primary conduits for the federal government largess, you might imagine the kind of backroom fighting that must go on in Columbus.
I’d say the following about Ohio. It has problems to be sure, but in an era where major metro areas are talent ups and the locus of economic growth, Ohio has some of the most favorable geography out there because a good chunk of the state is conceivably within the potential economic orbit of a city of a city with the minimum scale necessary to survive in the global economy. Having multiple large cities could be a blessing, not a curse. The question is, how can Ohio make this geography work for it, not against it? That is the challenge to solve.
Others attribute things to poor leadership. Anonymous 9:33 says:
At the moment, places like Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis are poster cities for failed leadership as much as anything. There are a lot of opinions about what to do, but the global marketplace doesn’t give a rat’s behind about personal opinions. It has its own logic and demands. They are constantly evolving, but it’s not impossible to create the systems needed to modify “urban products” to be more competitive.
It’s a leadership problem of the first magnitude.
A poster named “Jeffrey” gives what might be the most disturbing observation I heard:
Over those years I’ve hired a dozen people and observed a dozen more hirings. Of all the hirings that involved a move to Cleveland just for the job, no one stayed. (One guy even moved back to Detroit.) The last hire I moved to Cleveland (and the only one still here) I accepted only because his wife was from Cleveland (all other things/talent being equal).
If this anecdote is true as a general rule, it’s a huge sign of trouble. It’s exactly the opposite of what I usually hear. The story in places like Indy, Louisville, and Columbus is usually that it is extremely difficult to get people without a connection to relocate to the city, but once they are there they fall in love with it and it’s tough to get them to leave.
The always insightful Alon Levy throws a bit of cold water on all these suggestions, saying:
A lot of the comments here mention problems with Cleveland which are just as true in successful cities. For examples:
1. Cleveland has had incompetent mayors – but so have most other cities. Most cities haven’t had Dennis Kucinich for a mayor, but Cleveland’s decline began long before Kucinich.
2. Clevelanders are provincial and distrustful, but so are New Yorkers. For a while I thought it was just Upper West Side journalists trying to look cool, but eventually I realized that the idea that there’s nothing worthy outside of New York permeates New Yorkers of all social classes. This applies even to immigrants – the average New Yorker loves immigrants, as long as they tell him horror stories about how terrible the place they came from is.
3. Cleveland has a poor racial situation, but LA has a poorer one. The first race riots in the 60s were in LA and Detroit. South Central and Compton are both infamous for their poverty and crime. On top of these, Southern California has major unresolved issues with immigration. The region as a whole is considered liberal but only because of the Hispanic vote; many Anglos in SoCal, especially in Orange and San Diego Counties, hate Mexicans.
4. Cleveland has city/suburb friction, but so do most US metro areas. In Silicon Valley, there is a lot of NIMBYism going on with residents of the more affluent towns, such as Menlo Park and Palo Alto, trying to erect barriers to keep out people from the poorer towns, such as East Palo Alto, and destroy existing links. In New York, the New York City commuter tax was a bone of contention, and remains so even after it was abolished.
Not everything was negative or focused on Cleveland’s problems. JoeV says:
I think you should visit before you knock it. Your opinion of the city seems more a product of your lack of awareness. Cleveland has more by accident than most cities have on purpose. Bad government is the major problem here. There is a lot of potential in Cleveland.
I would agree that Cleveland has huge potential. How can we activate it?
And “cher cher” adds:
So what’s wrong with Cleveland? It’s not in the best shape, and it’s gotten hit really bad by the economic downturn. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s great about Cleveland. You should visit to get a full picture of the city before you criticize the city again.
There is a lot more I encourage you to check out for yourself. So far there are 52 comments to look at and more are welcome.
With this post, I’m actually going to take the liberty of disabling comments. To keep things all in one place, please add anything you would like to say to the main Cleveland thread. Thanks so much.
I’m going to end with a longish essay Matt Wosowski sent my via email that is not part of the original comment thread. It is reposted with permission of the author. The views expressed in it, as well as those in any comments, are solely those of the author. Everything in the balance of this posting is from Matt. So over to you, Matt:
Being an ex-Clevelander for the last 13 years has granted me a perspective about my hometown I was never able to possess while living there. Now I know that while growing up I was immersed in a city that suffers from a loser’s mentality – I was just too close to the people and the city to realize it at the time. But now this heartbreaking fact is all too apparent, and worse yet, it makes me feel like I’m one of those oppressor East Coasters who brags about ‘escaping’ the town in which he was raised. But that’s not the case at all. I still love Cleveland, I loved growing up there, I love visiting there, and I can’t imagine life without Northeast Ohio. However, though I’m now a transplanted New Yorker, I too suffer from a loser’s mentality, and I can’t help but attribute it to my homeland.
There are numerous reasons why I’m now certain that Clevelanders in general suffer from a loser’s mentality. They live in city that went from over one-million people in 1950 to less than 400,000 half-a-century later, send their kids to the nation’s poorest schools, still absorb cheap shots and bullying from other cities that were never nicknamed ‘The Mistake by the Lake,’ and are still reminded on a seemingly daily basis that the Cuyahoga River was so polluted during the city’s steel heyday that it actually caught on fire. In New York, whenever I tell a stranger that I grew up in Cleveland, that person usually gets a sympathetic look on his or her face and shrugs as if to offer condolences. And this reaction isn’t just particular to New York, as I’ve received it throughout the country, in places as varied as Los Angeles, Washington DC, Omaha, Provo, and even Flint, Michigan. This seemingly nationwide negative perception has visibly worn down my hometown and resigned its dwellers to believing that it actually is as dreary as the rest of the country perceives it to be. But instead of rallying, instead of fixing its perilous school system or bringing jobs back within the city limits, the masses seem to hide, only coming out for one reason – to root for its sports teams.
After I receive the aforementioned sympathetic look from the stranger whom I tell I grew up in Cleveland, something else inevitably follows; that person then says, “So you’re a huge Browns and Indians fan.” This happens all the time and is said completely matter-of-factly. Why? Because that is what Cleveland is now best known for – having the most loyal, caring fans in the country. And though this sounds somewhat complimentary, it’s actually incredibly unfortunate because Cleveland’s teams happen to be the biggest losers in their respective sports – literally – as the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948 and the Browns and Cavs have never even appeared in a Super Bowl or NBA Finals, respectively, let alone won one.
I’m from the middle of three entire generations of Clevelanders who have never celebrated a winning team, and this endurance of, ritual of, and expectance of losing has gone on for so long that it has completely seeped into the psyches of the citizens of the Northeast Ohio – myself included – making for a general populous that possesses an impossibly low set of standards for everything in their lives. Though Clevelanders like to deem themselves as being ‘resilient’ and ‘dedicated’ for their ability to tolerate one heartbreaking season after another, adjectives such as ‘pathetic’ and ‘accepting’ are much more accurate. Yet somehow, despite every lost game and every lost season, the love I share with my fellow Clevelanders for our teams never diminishes, and in fact –as it would in most other cities, particularly in front-running New York – it even grows, as hope for a winner springs eternal as each new season begins. And it is this hope that Clevelanders literally wear like badges of honor.
It’s nearly impossible to walk down a Northeast Ohio street and not see someone donning an article of Cleveland sports apparel. Indians hats, Browns coats, Cavs shorts or golf shirts, these items are so prevalent that they’ve even become acceptable attire in the workplace. Businessmen close their Cavs umbrellas as they enter their offices, politicians proudly don Indians pins on the lapels of their suit jackets, and teachers lecture in their Browns sweaters or polo shirts. For a long time I suspected these fashion statements were somewhat dubious, but once I arrived in the big city these suspicions were confirmed. In New York this would never fly. One never sees a truly successful person donning Yankees, Giants, or Rangers gear in any kind of a serious setting. Though Rudolph Giuliani proudly dons his Yankees jacket while attending games in The Bronx, he certainly never wore it while conducting serious business when he was mayor. And when the camera pans the crowd at Knicks games and spots moguls like Donald Trump and Jay-Z, they’re always dressed to the nines. They’re all business. But in Cleveland, outward displays of one’s love of sports aren’t just reserved for factory workers or ex-high school jocks, they’re equally reserved for the artist, soccer mom, socialite, and businessman, because sports in Northeast Ohio aren’t just a segment of the region’s culture; they’re the only culture, or at least the only widely available one.
Some urban centers have art and music coming out the whazoo, some have great weather and natural beauty, and others are hubs of commerce and industry, but Cleveland has its sports. Look at any list of top sports cities and you’ll usually find Cleveland at the head of the class, a distinction that clearly has its pros and cons. It’s positive because Clevelanders’ love for sports personifies the values of taking pride in one’s team and unconditionally supporting one’s community, but it’s clearly bad in the sense that there just isn’t anything else in which Clevelanders can take pride. You’ll never see Los Angeles, Miami, or New York on a list of cities for sports lovers, as in these cities sporting events take a backseat to pesky distractions like restaurants, museums, galleries, cafes, nightclubs, concerts, and recreation. But in Cleveland – a city so lifeless that most of its red lights turn to blinking yellow after 11pm each night – there’s sports, and that’s about it. There are a handful of museums, a science center, and the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, but one can only visit them once or twice a decade because once you visit them the first time, well, you’ve seen all there is to see. On a daily basis, the most frequently visited stores reside in malls, most dining is done in chain restaurants, and for nightlife, there’s an insignificant bar district downtown, a few neighborhood dives, and a number of tiny, under funded community theaters. And that’s about it. But Cleveland’s sports teams can be found playing several games each week, year round, with the Indians playing in the spring and summer, the Browns in the fall, and the Cavs in the winter and spring until the Indians start another season. These events are always accessible and are ultimately the only game in town, literally. For example, my parents – who also ‘escaped’ Cleveland in the Fall of 2000 for retirement along the Gulf Coast of Florida – pride themselves on the fact that they took my sister and I to see the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra when we were still in diapers, but despite their best efforts to try to take us to as wide a variety of cultural events as possible, we still ended up going to countless more sporting events than plays or musicals.
With so little to do and so little to see, I fully realized at my five-year high school reunion that a fair share of Northeast Ohioans quickly settle down, hoping that family life will keep them entertained. In what I quickly learned was typical Clevelander-settling fashion, many get married immediately after high school or college, consider a move from a western suburb to an eastern suburb a huge step, and wait for their kids to reach the ripe old age of five or six so they can get them on athletic field, hoping their kids will star on at least one high school sports team. Then their kids graduate and the cycle starts all over again, because odds are that kid isn’t moving to Columbus or Cincinnati, let alone another state. This is a stark contrast to the lifestyle of most of my peers in New York who can’t even fathom the idea of marriage before 30 or 35.
When I visit I’m further saddened how the city has lost its personality and has adopted a new one that evidently revolves around chain stores and restaurants and other elements which are representative of the homogenization of our country. It’s a city whose identity went from being the eminent cultural and industrial center between New York and Chicago to a city in perpetual recovery mode, desperate to reinvent itself after 50 years of decay and poverty. But since its Browns, Cavs, and Indians endured the area’s downfall, they have become viewed as survivors, as entities that managed to win the battle against the economic dark forces that for so long held a cold grip on the entire region. Therefore, it is these teams that have become the cultural foundation of the area and have become so important that they go as far as to actually dictate the social structure of area, a social structure that’s definitely unique from the rest of the country.
As my friend Brendan points out, there are certain basic social codes that are known to everyone, but often, somehow, not known to Clevelanders. For instance, any average Joe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn who spends his day sporting his Yankees hat knows enough to take it off and wash his hair if he’s got a date that night. But this doesn’t apply to any average Joe in Cleveland. While most American fellas will comb their hair, put on a nice shirt, and at least try to wear matching pants, it’s hardly atypical to see a Northeast Ohioan on a first date wearing his Indians coat or Browns jersey, and interestingly, in most cases the girl won’t only not be surprised when she sees her suitor wearing this typically tasteless attire, but will completely accept it.
Therefore it’s now my opinion as an outside observer that it is this air of rock-bottom standards that permeates throughout the region, as Clevelanders have lowered their expectations so much that they not only expect their sports teams to lose – and accept it when they inevitably do – but accept and expect the lowest of standards in all facets of life, from restaurants, to stores, to people. For better or for worse, it’s not that Clevelanders are that much less superficial than other American city dwellers, it’s just they really do have lower standards. And because these diminished expectations reverberate throughout all facets of Clevelanders’ lives, an aura of desperation becomes evident. So on the rare occasion Clevelanders see an opportunity for a winner, for a chance to pull themselves from the gutter, they hang on to that opportunity and never relinquish their collective grip. And this is why sports are so appealing to Clevelanders; because they always represent the hope – and need – for a winner.
Nowhere else can thousands of fans desperate for a winner be found than at the three pro sports venues in the city. Cleveland Browns Stadium, Jacobs Field (home of the Indians), and Gund Arena (home of the Cavs) are Cleveland’s new churches, in the sense that this where the downtrodden go to find hope. Thousands of Clevelanders pour into their stadiums and arenas and pray that for at least one day that their team will be a winner, thereby lending happiness to their sullen souls if even for only a few hours. To stand around the water cooler on a Monday morning after a Browns victory you’d think that a coworker had just had a baby or got married that previous weekend, as everyone’s faces will be vibrant and beaming; and on a Monday morning after a Browns loss, well, let’s just say that hell would be a significantly better place in which to be. And this applies to just about everyone, regardless of job, class, or status. As uncouth as it would be in most other cities, it’s perfectly reasonable for the richest men and women in Cleveland to bundle up in a parkas, long-johns, and an unraveling stocking cap to go to a late-December Browns game to sit next to a factory working dressed just as functionally. There’s simply no better way to feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself than to be with 80,000 strangers all rooting as hard as you. And just like that, each game becomes Cleveland’s own version of a revival, complete with chanting, clapping, hoping, and a feeling of we’re-all-in-this-thing togetherness.
I always joke that I had my first religious experience in the mid 1990’s, as this was the first time in nearly half a century that my doormat Indians became a winner. The Indians had literally been the worst team in all of baseball since 1950 and were so woeful that in the 1980’s Hollywood even made Major League, a blockbuster comedy based on the perpetual sorrow and ineptitude of the franchise. Among the Indians’ many dubious levels of loserdom, the most noteworthy was the fact that until 1994 they played in the venerable (read: old and falling apart) Cleveland Municipal Stadium and typically averaged 7,500 people per game, a particularly disheartening statistic in light of the fact that the stadium held 80,000 people. Although having such an empty stadium was advantageous in the sense that one could decide to go to a game on a whim and still get a seat in the first or second row, the emptiness of such an expansive stadium eventually took its toll on the players and became a black eye on the team and city which never healed. But then, finally, after 40 destitute years, the 1990’s saw the Indians finally become good, really good, and their newly found success coincided with the construction of what was then Cleveland’s newest cathedral – Jacobs Field.
Most Major League Baseball teams would be ecstatic if they had 10 sellouts (of 81 home games) in an entire season. Even Yankee Stadium, which can draw fans from across the country’s largest metropolitan area, will rarely fill all its seats even 20 times in a given season. But the Indians sold out its new home park for 455 consecutive games from 1995-2001. Sports fans love to talk about records that will never be broken, and this is definitely one such record. Just as it’s commonplace for lines to wrap around the block for a Hollywood premiere or for a Manhattan club opening, for six years the sidewalks of Cleveland’s Carnegie Avenue and East 9th Street were runneth over by fans eager to get into Jacobs Field, as Indians games were where Clevelanders went to be touched by the higher power of victory. From politicians to steelworkers, from machinists to hipsters, it didn’t matter, as the turnstiles of Jacobs Field may as well have been St. Peter’s gates.
The 1990’s were widely considered to be Cleveland’s renaissance, and although these years saw the construction of the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame and Gund Arena, it was Jacobs Field that was truly the heart of the city’s revival, as the stadium’s residents, perennial losers for half a century, finally became contenders. The Indians were suddenly the best team in baseball and as nice as it was that the city’s starving fans had a shiny new ballpark in which to enjoy their newly dominant team, it was the fact that generations of Indians fans were finally able to exorcise the dark years of their team’s futility that caused them to come out in droves to do so – to the point where tickets for an entire season would sell out before the season even began. Selling out every game before a season began wasn’t just unprecedented, it was believable, and probably won’t ever be replicated by any other baseball team. It had become clear that as much as Cleveland wanted a winner, even more so, it needed a winner.
Clevelanders needed something else to get excited about beyond their dreary lives. They needed to forget about miserable jobs, failing schools, and the slushy, sloppy snow that covers the ground for five months each year. And although it was only a sports team, it was a sports team that was only being looked upon to save an entire city.
Suddenly a city that for half-a-century had adopted the personality of its losing teams enjoyed a renaissance, a renaissance entirely founded on a winning baseball team that represented something so much larger. It created civic pride. It created something around which to rally. It created an excuse to be downtown after 5:01pm on a weeknight. Few in Cleveland could aspire to becoming a CEO, socialite, or famous figurehead, as those jobs and opportunities just don’t exist in Cleveland, but everyone in Cleveland could be a fan of a winning team, and this was a way of being part of something prominent on a national scale that brought acclaim to the city, and therefore to the individual fan. This was something everyone used to elevate their own lives.
In 2002, the Indians’ remarkable run came to and end as the team fell back to earth and became a loser once again, but sports continue to remain the greatest attraction to those throughout the region. The same lackluster job market exists, there still aren’t any fancy new clubs, and taking a girl to Chili’s will definitely win a fella a second date, even if he wore his Indians jacket on the first one. It doesn’t matter if a Cleveland team ever becomes a winner again because the act of simply rooting for the home team still empowers Clevelanders to escape and feel as if they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, adding a sense of purpose to each Clevelander’s life that surpasses work and PTA meetings. The steel mills aren’t going to reopen, Bobby Flay probably won’t open a niche eatery any time soon, and it will take a miracle for the schools to dramatically improve, but it’s certain that sports will remain the enduring bedrock of a region that not only craves, but needs, a winner.
Not surprisingly, my own mentality can be attributed to Cleveland’s woeful sports teams in the sense that I operate along the lines of, “it’s okay; I tried my hardest.” Though I’m somewhat competitive, I certainly possess nothing that could ever be mistaken for a killer instinct. Whether it’s not being disappointed at my job about losing a big contract or whether it’s me not making my best pitch to take home the hottest girl in the bar, I lack a certain trait that decrees I go for the jugular. And I’m certain I got this acceptance of almost-good-enoughness from Cleveland for the simple reason that I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a winner. Entering my fourth decade I’ve never jumped up and down with my friends as I watched the final seconds tick off the clock in a Browns’ Super Bowl victory, I’ve never seen my Cavs hoist an NBA championship trophy, and I’ve never been at Jacobs Field with 42,000 of my closest friends cheering into the night as my World Series winning Indians parade through the outfield for a final curtain call. Even on a personal level, the only two championships I’ve been a part of were when I was on an intramural basketball team in college and a rec league in Manhattan. Therefore – probably to avoid being perpetually frustrated or constantly wanting to slit my wrists – I’ve always viewed that ‘being good enough’ is indeed good enough. I’ve fully bought into the belief that all one can ask for is to give it their best. But I’m starting to feel that sentiment is just a cop out for losers whose best isn’t good enough. And it makes me think I’m one of those losers.
I’ve always believed that one needs to be mentored by – or at least be within close proximity of – someone or something extremely successful in order to learn how to achieve. But, thanks in large part to Cleveland’s sports teams, I’ve never witnessed or been around greatness, and as a result greatness has never seemed like something attainable. So what greatness haven’t I achieved? Plenty.
In the big picture of my life, it’s this acceptance of mediocrity that has caused me to never commit to be great at one of my desired professions, has caused me on a few occasions to not do everything in my power to make a girl I love fall in love with me, and has led me to become content to remain at a job that despite paying good enough, still pays significantly less than many others in big ol’ money-grubbing New York. And in the little picture, mediocrity factors into my minute-to-minute existence. For instance, on my old online dating profile I described my appearance as ‘professional sloppy’ because I can’t even bring myself to dress as well as I could (or should) at work. As the adage states; dress for the job you want, not for the one you have, yet I rarely even tuck in my shirt. It’s not that I refuse to tuck-in at work because I’m morally opposed to ‘dressing corporate,’ but because I’m skinny and therefore my shirts are usually too baggy and there’s too much material to tuck into my pants which makes it extremely uncomfortable. But that’s hardly an excuse, yet it’s one on which I rely to justify the fact I haven’t been promoted in six years. And as hard as it is for me to swallow, my most successful peers at work all dress better than I do. Sure it’s a petty detail, but it’s a significant detail nonetheless. Hell, I still only buy used furniture and still own the same computer I won for free in 1998. Again, where’s my killer instinct? Maybe I just have other ones that get in the way.
Interestingly, I’ve found that even though my instincts, particularly at my job, tend to be spot-on, yet I rarely speak up at my company or make contrary arguments during meetings because I don’t want to ruffle feathers or risk upsetting the people with whom I work closely on a daily basis. Consequently, I often resign myself to accepting tasks I shouldn’t be doing – or think are wrong for the company as a whole – in order to appease my coworkers to ensure I remain in their good graces. I have this inclination of not wanting to ruffle any feathers despite the fact that when I do speak up I often find that my colleagues listen very closely and regularly agree with me. Nevertheless, I remain content just being good enough.
Though I used to think that I’ve pushed myself a lot throughout my life, it becomes clearer on a daily basis that I’ve been kidding myself. While I know I can always try harder, at some point I became complacent and accepted my comfortable surroundings, thereby never allowing myself to fully progress. And I wonder if it’s primarily because I’ve never tasted victory and don’t know what it’s like to be on top, or whether it’s because I’ve never been privy to another’s success which could have inspired me to develop a killer instinct. I’m not sure. And I’m also unsure if I want to push myself to truly find out the truth. So in the meantime, while I wait to demand greatness from myself, at this point it’ll be ‘good enough’ if at the very least my stupid Browns, Cavs, or Indians win the whole damn thing just once!
Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
Along with Detroit, Cleveland is the poster child for major Midwestern urban decline and a favorite punching bag for the national and international media. But Detroit’s travails are easy to understand. Anyone can look at and attribute them to the auto industry and poor race relations. The reality is more complex, but at least Detroit lends itself to a narrative. Cleveland is a different story. What happened in Cleveland to cause this? Even I cannot come up with a “grand unified theory” of Cleveland, which those of you who read this blog know is very unusual.
I was drawn to start thinking about Cleveland by this “tourism video”:
It’s humorous but also curious. Why would someone, presumably a local, create something like this?
That got me to wondering about Cleveland. I’ve actually never been to Cleveland. That in itself is notable. Out of the 11 Midwestern cities I typically cover in this blog, I’ve been to all but two, and most of them many times. (Kansas City is the other, but it’s a bit out of the way and arguably as much Great Plains as Midwest). Business never took me to Cleveland, another data point. And despite my desire to spend a weekend at least in all these places, Cleveland just never made the cut.
I also haven’t written much about it. I scan the news in every Midwestern metro daily but seldom find much that would cause me to write a major post about Cleveland. While not writing about it certainly plays a role, I get less web traffic from Cleveland than any other of my Midwest cities. I get more hits from New York, LA, SF, Boston, and DC than from Cleveland. It might be the only city in the Midwest where I don’t know of a web site that has linked to me.
It doesn’t appear to just be me either. Jim Russell over at Return to Pittsburgh says, “A better definition of Cleveland is a cul-de-sac of globalization”. He excoriates their lack of regional thinking. He also reminds us that Richard Longworth, author of the seminal work on the challenge of globalization in the Midwest, “Caught in the Middle“, found Cleveland an odd place indeed. Per Longworth:
“In all my travels through the Midwest, Cleveland was the only place, big or small, that seemed heedless of the global challenge. Only 4 percent of its population is foreign-born, in an era that demands new blood; the city government isn’t sure it wants more. One of its leading economists told me, ‘You can’t kill manufacturing–that’s stupid,’ but manufacturing is fleeing and cities need new ways to support themselves.”
Cleveland’s economic development establishment comes in for criticism not just from bloggers like Russell and journalists like Longworth, but from economic development professionals like native Ed Morrison:
“Most of the people doing regional economic development in this town don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s not really that surprising that the region has launched some remarkably unproductive efforts.”
That’s pretty stunning coming from a guy who lives there. I don’t know Morrison, but he works for Purdue University and commutes from Cleveland, where he also founded an open source economic development organization called I-Open that appears to be one of the few things keeping Cleveland’s economy in business. I’m alert for such things, but I don’t think I’ve heard Morrison criticize Indiana’s economic development, or anyone else’s, like that. He actually sounds a bit like a woman scorned, so I’m sure there’s a story in there someplace, but it’s pretty telling nevertheless.
Neither Morrison nor Russell care much for the site selection consultant tours Cleveland has been doing. You can see coverage of them here and here. Russell hits us with an interesting excerpt from the Plain Dealer:
“To distinguish its red-carpet tours, Team NEO crafts attention-grabbing invitations. For the tour during the Rock Hall’s induction weekend, invitees received small guitar cases with invitations tucked inside.
“‘We are competing for these jobs against Indianapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh,’ said Team NEO’s Carin Rockind, vice president of marketing and communications. ‘We have to break through.'”
I realize gimmicks are par for the course, but does this person really think anyone is going to pick Cleveland over those other cities because of the quality of their swag? Detroit? Michigan is economic kryptonite these days, so that’s no problem. Pittsburgh is a much tougher competitor for jobs these days than a lot of people give them credit for but is still a rather slow growth place dependent on “eds and meds”. Those are easy cities to measure yourself against. But let’s look at Indianapolis and do a quick comparison of the two cities.
|Population Growth Last Year||(0.3%), 51 out of 52 large US metros, 10 out of 11 large Midwest||1.3%, 40% higher than national avg, 19th in US large metro, #1 in Midwest large|
|Migration||Negative (net out-migration)||Positive (net in-migration)|
|GDP Growth 2001-2006||21%||26%|
This is just a sample, but will give you a feel. On any relevant measure, Indianapolis beats Cleveland. Most notably, Cleveland’s population is shrinking meaning that the labor force situation is deteriorating over time.
Like almost all other cities, Cleveland is chasing dreams of life sciences, high tech, and green industry. That’s totally undifferentiated, though there is no denying that the Cleveland Clinic is one of the absolute best in the entire world, so anyone in a health care related company that could leverage the Cleveland Clinic connection would have to take a serious look at Cleveland. But beyond that, I couldn’t find much else, nor any indication that there is any strategic depth to the thinking in these spaces, and I spent a lot of time looking. Grass roots organizations like I-Open and E4S seem to be thriving, but it looks like they are just filling the vacuum left by the establishment.
Indianapolis, like most places, also has the same list of industries, but to that you can add things like motorsports and the sports events industry. Also, where that city is shooting for the target sector du jour, it has, in some areas, really taken a look at where it can win and tried to be focused on its target. For example, in the green industry segment, the Energy Systems Network is looking at some very focused areas, with a largely private sector funding model. Interestingly, Ed Morrison helped develop this. In the high tech space, it isn’t just scattershot here and there, but there’s a mini-cluster in internet marketing companies that is one of the nation’s biggest, with over 1,000 employees. The era of the large, megalithic corporation as the engine of growth is coming to a close. Tomorrow’s economy will be powered by clusters of smaller, densely networked firms that in aggregate will add up to what a traditional HQ used to bring. The motorsports and internet marketing clusters are right on point with this.
Plus there are plenty of other emerging sectors. I talked previously about how proximity to Chicago creates unique opportunities for Indy (and Milwaukee). And how the central Indiana region was primed to be a center for BPO. KMPG recently named Indianapolis one of only two US cities as hot spots for BPO (Boise was the other). In fact, the Indianapolis region has some of the most favorable geography of any city for BPO with the region-leading but still low cost downtown in the middle and a ring of ultra low cost small cities ringing it within easy commute distance.
Indianapolis has its problems to be sure. It is no Sunbelt boomtown by a long shot. But it runs rings around Cleveland, as do other Midwest growth champs like Columbus, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Having Cleveland compete against any of these cities in most spaces isn’t even a fair fight. It would be interesting to see a study done on average incentives paid for site selections and what the averages are per city. I’d speculate that if Cleveland didn’t have some unique tie in like the Cleveland Clinic, it has to pay much more to win. That is, it has to buy the business.
This must put the state of Ohio in a bind since given an open playing field, most businesses are going to choose already thriving Columbus over Cleveland. But tilting incentives towards Cleveland to compensate would fracture the fragile balance in a state with 7-8 decent sized cities, including three major metros over one million in population. It’s a tough balancing act.
Now obviously the TeamNEO guys aren’t going to flagellate themselves in the media. That would only be material for other cities to use against them. They’ve got to do their best to sell the city and maximize what they can out of its assets such as my favorite, the Cleveland Orchestra (one of the absolute best in the entire world – I love some of their old recordings), the Rock N Roll Museum, the Cleveland Clinic, Lake Erie, and the transit systems they have. (I salute Cleveland for its transit, and especially the new Health Line BRT). But it makes me wonder if they believe their own press.
As I’ve noted of many Midwest cities, there is a legitimate marketing problem out there with vanilla and negative brand images in the marketplace. But it’s not just a marketing problem, it’s a product problem. If Midwest cities want to make themselves attractive to the labor force of tomorrow and new economy businesses, they need to change their aspirational value proposition and start changing the product to match it. I don’t see that happening in Cleveland, except in pockets.
Back at the beginning of the decade the Cleveland Plain Dealer did a fantastic series called “The Quiet Crisis“. You should definitely look at this, but be careful, because it can suck you in and take up tons of time. I spent a few days looking through all these articles. What strikes me is that all of the problems in Cleveland were well known a decade ago, but what has really happened in response? It’s eight years on and the answer is Not Much. To a great extent, it just didn’t seem to resonate locally. I recall again how Longworth recounted the editor of the paper telling him how the sections on globalization and immigration “landed with a thud” and that Cleveland seemed content to sit “sour and crumbling” on the lake.
Again, what is it? What happened here? Lots of large Midwestern cities got walloped by the Rust Belt era and globalization, but few came through as bad as Cleveland and Detroit. Again, the auto industry provides a narrative lens through which to process Detroit. But in Cleveland I’m having trouble grasping it. Was it steel dependency? If so, why did Pittsburgh walk through the valley of the shadow of death and come through it still standing? They aren’t a thriving city by any means, but seem to have bottomed out and even hit the inflection point in a few eras. Pittsburgh is even being touted recently as a role model for Detroit, though I don’t know if I would go that far personally.
There has to be some sort of historical dynamic going on that I’m not aware of. The only angle that makes any sense at all to me is that something poisoned intra-region relations long ago and that carries through to today. Cleveland to me exhibits some of the worst regional cooperation I’ve ever seen, with tons of in-fighting. Jim Russell rails on them for not including Youngstown in Northeast Ohio. But that’s small potatoes. I remember last year when a suburban community called Avon wanted to build an interstate interchange. A developer was even going to pay the cost. But since it was on an interstate highway, it had to be put into the regional transportation plan from the MPO, and since the MPO was controlled by Cuyahoga County, they vetoed it until Avon agreed to a tax sharing deal. In effect, Cleveland is trying to solve its problems by extorting money from its own suburbs at gunpoint. This is terrible. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. Whatever one’s opinion of sprawl or regional taxes, this is not the right way to do it.
Cleveland seems to have forgotten that a great city needs great suburbs. We have to bring the city up, not pull the suburbs down. In a region of the country that is too often struggling, every part of a metro area has to bring their A game, and there needs to be a recognition that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Beyond that, Russell’s calling Cleveland a “cul-de-sac” struck a chord. Cleveland just seems curiously disconnected from the rest of Ohio, from the rest of the Midwest, and from what is going on out in the world. Normally if I post an article about a city, it gets forwarded around in that city and I get lots of hits from there. We’ll see if anyone in Cleveland even notices this. In fact, I’ve got to confess, I’m running a bit of an experiment with this one. Will anyone in Cleveland notice? I’ll post a comment in a few days to let you know how it turned out.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have that explain the Cleveland situation since I will admit to being at a bit of a loss. For more input, Ed Morrison gives his take over at New Geography in a two part series called Cleveland: How the Comeback Collapsed (part one and part two). I should clarify something here. Ed Morrison, Jim Russell, and I all post stuff at New Geography, but we have no financial or other relationship because of that. I know Jim via email through blogging, but I don’t know Ed from Adam, though I read his stuff.
Sunday, April 19th, 2009
“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” -I Corinthians 1:27
When I posited that a critical mass of non-natives is a near prerequisite for civic change, someone noted that the Midwest needed to import more talented people because it was no secret what was really need to change things. In his words, “It takes brains.”
I’m sympathetic to this in a sense. In the 21st century economy, attracting top, educated talent is of paramount importance. But I wanted to post a rebuttal as well, because this is not the whole story. In fact, in the long run, it might be of lesser importance than other, more important things that often fail to attract notice. This idea of “attracting the best and brightest” is such a well-established meme that it is seldom subjected to any critique. It’s time to change that. Especially as it is the basis of so much urban policy.
I have a colleague in Hamburg, Germany who attributed his country’s relative economic stagnation over the last couple of decades to the fact that “we’re the children of the people who stayed.” That is, faced with a choice about what to do in the face of dire poverty and endless wars in the 19th century, Germans had two choices: stay or leave, usually by emigrating to the United States.
Today’s Germany is the inheritance of those who stayed. My friend argues, very persuasively, that this robbed Germany of its entrepreneurial energy. Those who were risk takers, those who were motivated to better themselves, those who weren’t afraid to take a chance to get the opportunity for a better future for themselves and their family, left Germany. Those who wanted to play it safe, who preferred the devil they knew, who were in fear of the great unknown, they stayed behind.
Today Germany remains, despite its robust Mittelstand, a place curiously lacking in entrepreneurial energy. I was told that in Germany, to go bankrupt is a moral stigma that ruins you for life in that society. That there are coal mines kept open by subsidies that are higher than the average wage of the workers who are employed there. It would be cheaper simply to pay them their salary for the rest of their life to do nothing than to keep the mine open. Yet these workers insist that they have a right to “earn” a living by mining – and that their children be allowed to become miners too as a sort of hereditary avocation.
The contrast with America could not be more stark. How many coal miners in Kentucky hope that their sons end up in that mine? Maybe, as a last resort. As I noted about visiting foreign countries, you are sometimes made aware of values and beliefs you were never even aware of holding. The idea that one generation should have it better than the next, that children should surpass their parents in income and social status, I guess I always just thought of as being as natural as the air we breathe. But it seems far from the case.
My paternal great-great-etc grandfather came to the United States from Bavaria early in the 19th century. (I still occasionally get emails from people in Munich with the same last name as me, “Renn”). He was fleeing conscription. My maternal grandfather was the only member of his immediately family born in United States. The rest of them were from Sicily. He was 6’2″ but his brothers were very short because they had been so malnourished as children and didn’t get enough protein. I’m sure most American families can tell similar stories.
If talent matters so much, how is it that a nation made up largely of Europe’s rejects ended up becoming the most powerful economy on earth? While we were able to pick up some great talent in the mid-20th century because of Hitler and WWII, we were not notably the place to be for the European upper crust, whether that be aristocrats or intellectuals.
Maybe education and talent aren’t the most important thing in the long run. Maybe the “talent” that matters is a willingness to take risk, to change, and the desire to better one’s condition. I won’t suggest this is the only thing that matters, but it strikes me as important. To be sure, Europe’s more rigid class structure did not give full scope to intellectual capacities for people from the lower classes, so we no doubt got some geniuses we could put to good use that they were underutilizing. But interestingly, that still seems to be the case today in much of the world.
Also, consider: people who are successful in the now are those who are best adapted to today’s world. But the world isn’t ending in a few weeks, it stretches out into the future. Who will be best adapted to tomorrow? In a world of rapid and increasing change, over-optimization for today’s conditions is an economic death sentence. Rather, we’ve got to be able to change ourselves and adapt to the future. Thus, the willingness to change and to take risk will take on ever greater importance to keep up.
In two absolutely must-read essays called “The Unnaturalness of Human Nature” and “The Role of Undesirables” (available in his masterpiece “The Ordeal of Change“), Eric Hoffer discusses this in his normal penetrating style as he talks about the particular importance of the “unfit” in paving the way to tomorow.
“The inept and unfit also display a high degree of venturesomeness in welcoming and promoting innovations in all fields. It is not usually the successful who advocate drastic social reforms, plunge into new undertakings in business and industry, go out to tame the wilderness, etc. People who make good usually stay where they are and go on doing more and better what they know how to do well. The plunge into the new is often an escape from an untenable situation and a maneuver to mask one’s ineptness. To adopt the role of the pioneer and avant-garde is to place oneself in a situation where ineptness and awkwardness are acceptable and even unavoidable, for experience and know-how count for little in tackling the new, and we expect the wholly new to be ill-shapen and ugly.”
It isn’t just about attracting the talented – usually meaning the educated and already successful – of today. It’s about attracting the talented of tomorrow – and those are people we often don’t even know are talented yet. Innovation depends on the outcast.
So many places seem to be missing the boat. Canada would be a great example. They are trying to make it easy to immigrate there if you are an educated person with money. They want to exclude others who might prove a “burden” on society. But this fails to take a life-cycle view of talent. It’s like have children. Children in the modern economy are a deadweight loss economically for about the first 18-22 years since they produce almost nothing. But without children, where will we be when today’s workers retire? (Again, look at Germany to find out). It’s similar for other aspects of talent. We need to be replenishing the soil with new risk takers and entpreneurs, not actually self-selecting for the risk averse and depleting the nutrients needed for tomorrow.
In an era of rapid change, playing it safe is actually the riskier course. Putting all your chips on the now, and not spreading some money around the table on speculative bets that may never pay off is a recipe for ruin.
Which would you rather have, a handful of Ph.D.’s with big reputations or a few thousand Mexican peasants who literally risked their lives sneaking across the desert to get into this country?
Ross Perot famously talked about a “giant sucking sound” from jobs headed south of the border. He was completely backwards. The real giant sucking sound is America hoovering up all of the risk takers, entrepreneurs and most motivated citizens of Mexico. We’re sending them a few jobs. They’re sending us their true “best and brightest”. We’re sending them some factories, they’re sending us their future. They sold us their birthright for a few manufacturing plants.
So I say it takes more than brains – a lot more. As a said in my article, “The Hustler as a Key Component of Urban Success“, what really matters is that a city is a place where people of all stripes decide they will plant their flag and seek their fortune – not come to spend it after they already earned it someplace else. If your city isn’t attractive to hustlers, poor immigrants, ne’er-do-wells of various kinds, entrepreneurs, avant-garde creatives, etc., if people aren’t voting with their feet to move there to better their lives, this is telling you something very powerful about the future. In a very real way, the long term future of a city depends as much on attracting the supposedly least talented as it does the most.
Saturday, April 18th, 2009
On the Cusp, the premier contemporary art blog in Indianapolis, conducted an art survey to collect some facts about the local arts community and market. They recently covered the announcement of the results. The big topic of debate was around people buying art.
“Two questions sparked the most discussion. The amount of money people had spent buying art and the top figure most would consider for an art purchase hit a ceiling of about $500. Scott pointed out that there are many who easily spend $300 for a few hours of entertainment at a Colts game, but where is the mindset that an investment in original artwork lasts a lifetime?”
I speculated on this a bit in the comments and decided to repost some of my thoughts here.
Why do people not buy art? Or why are they willing to spend so little doing it?
Well, for one thing, the vast majority of places do not have a culture of art buying. Tyler Green brought this up during a lecture once when someone asked him why New York and Los Angeles are arts hubs. One reason is that people there buy art. In New York, collecting art is something one does as you acquire the means to do so, at least in a certain social set. That’s not true in most places.
Contrast this with sports. Parents most places bring their kids up to cheer for sports teams like they are instilling a religion. The number one thing that would convince people to buy art and buy more expensive art would be to be around other people who did so such that it was a normal and expected part of life.
The second reason I think people both don’t buy art and, if they do, they don’t want to spend much money on it is fear. Fear that they are are a sucker, are overpaying for something, and will look like an idiot one day because of it. Fear that they are being ripped off or taking advantage of by people much more knowledgeable than themselves. Fear that they can never get any resale value out of the work. Think about walking into a gallery like walking into a car dealership times twenty and you get the picture. Lots of angst.
The sad reality is, while these things might not be the norm, it’s actually possible any of them can be true. The art market is famously opaque. Most local artists in any city have no real established market value for their work. Indeed, it is certainly possible that they’ve sold few if any works to anyone who isn’t friends and family. And when it comes to contemporary art, there’s long been an aura of the emperor’s new clothes about the whole enterprise. The art market is caveat emptor like all others.
The average person is not an art expert, doesn’t know what art “should” cost, has no confidence in their own taste, and therefore is very uncertain. The fact that buying art is positioned as an act of monumental significance, and that you are being entrusted with some object that needs to be preserved for the ages, only heightens the angst. Note the quote above, “lasts a lifetime”. Who wants to sign up for that kind of responsibility?
Contrast with a Colts game. You have a known, well-understood commodity, with an established price in the market. Tickets can easily be resold if you can’t make the game. People know what they will get for their money. And they know that if they are getting ripped off by the prices, so is everyone else. They are confident in their choice to like the team. Plus, it is an ephemeral experience. People aren’t stuck at a football game for years. If the team loses or they have a bad time, they can psychologically write off the cost.
If we want people to actually buy art – let’s assume that’s the primary goal at present – then these are the issues we need to tackle.
The cultural of art buying will take care of itself if you can get the pump primed. One way to do that is to create a mental analogy, reinforced through the marketing of art, to a type of purchase people can already envision themselves making (see below).
The other points are:
- How do you establish transparency in the market? Perhaps a local registry of prices paid, maintained by an independent party with solid documentation, and a ban on non-arms length or related party transactions would help. Put this on the web openly for anyone to consult. This could potentially also handle the secondary market to show the value over time (most art is likely to depreciate in my opinion – which is ok, if we know about it in advance). It might also help with tracking provenance.
- How do you establish a viable secondary market that doesn’t totally destroy value? Perhaps some type of a “certified pre-owned” program, run through the same registry would help. Lots of thinking needs to be done here.
- Art needs to be repositioned as a temporary purchase. People shouldn’t feel like they are buying a Patek Philippe when they buy a piece of art (“You never actually own it, you just take care of it for the next generation”). Instead, let’s make art buying more like any other consumer purchase where the item in question has a limited life span in your possession. I suggested fashion, but Jeffrey Cufaude had an even better idea in looking at it like home furnishings or decor. People are willing to pay a lot for a sofa. They know it will be there for a while, but they will eventually replace it. Similarly, it should be psychologically Ok to get rid of art you bought, even by throwing it out if necessary. That might seem anathema, but if your goal is to sell art, then people shouldn’t be made to feel like they are participating in some momentous civilizational event and that they are saddled with something they might change their mind about later for the rest of their lives.
Could this program be embraced? Who knows. The art world establishment in major markets seems to view transparency with horror. They like inefficiency. But do we need to pattern local art purchases in most cities after the same business practices used for high end art? I’m not so sure. Perhaps we could use a more clean disconnect between the two.
Saturday, April 18th, 2009
I don’t normally post this sort of thing, but I thought this Cleveland “tourism video” was priceless. WARNING: Not for the humor impaired.
On a more positive note, Cleveland is frequently victimized by lengthy analysis pieces in the national media. No places seem to get more bashing than Cleveland and Detroit. So it was great for Cleveland that the Wall Street Journal did a positive piece called “Artists vs. Blight” that used Cleveland as an example of how artists are coming back to the Midwest and, lured by almost free housing, are starting to turn around blighted neighborhoods.
I’ve seen this up close and personal. It happened in my Indianapolis neighborhood, Fountain Square. What I think is the most notable part of this is that unlike in bigger cities, housing is so ridiculously cheap that these artists are buying, not renting. This means it will be much harder for them to get displaced by gentrification.
However, I don’t see many signs of gentrification hitting. Many years ago I worried that would happen to Fountain Square, but now it seems years off if it ever happens. Here’s the dynamic. There is huge demand for urban living in places like New York and Chicago. So when artists start changing a neighborhood to make it yuppie safe, lots of people will move in, seeking the urban life at comparatively reasonable cost. There is pent up demand. In most Midwestern cities, however, there is very limited demand for urban living. There just isn’t a sufficient inflow of people to redevelop much of these cities, sadly. Even a few thousand new residents moving into a city like Cleveland aren’t going to move the needle in a place that has lost hundreds of thousands in population. So the pressure of gentrification is lower. This has its good and bad points. We’ll see how it evolves.
There was more high speed rail news this week as President Obama outlined his national HSR strategy. Clearly, the President is upping the rhetoric. The question is whether this will become a reality. $8 billion peanut butter spread around the country won’t accomplish a lot. And I think 110MPH service from Amtrak (instead of real HSR) could actually do as much harm as good to the cause. Plus, given the lead times, this isn’t going to be a Spain like system before the next election. HSR has the potential to be a major presidential legacy for Obama the way the interstate system was for Eisenhower – if he has the staying power and perseverance to stick with it knowing the results will probably not be fully realized until after he’s out of office. Of course, that’s the case with almost all real legacies. For another view, take a look at Adron Hall’s more negative slant.
CNN/Money is running a survey of city taxes (via Advance Indiana). Here is how the Midwest stacked up. The higher your ranking, the worse your taxes, so the worse your rank, the better you are. Think of this as the hall of shame.
- #4 – Detroit
- #5 – Indianapolis
- #6 – Milwaukee
- #8 – Louisville
- #9 – Columbus
- #13 – Kansas City
- #23 – Minneapolis
- #42 – Chicago
There were 51 cities surveyed. I don’t think the results can be dismissed, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As someone who pays property taxes in Chicago, I don’t know where they are getting that $1000 figure. That must either be the municipal rate only, or somehow factor in taxes on the large volume of rentals in the city, many of which are in vintage buildings. I’d like to see the methodology.
I talk a lot in this blog about cities knowing who they are and what they stand for. The folks over at 37Signals had a great blog post on this recently, on the difference between having a mission statement and truly standing for something. “Standing for something isn’t just about writing it down. It’s about believing it and living it.”
The Chicago Tribune talks about tough times ahead in the Midwest in auto dependent areas.
Express bus will use I-55 shoulders (Tribune)
Innermost workings of the CTA explained (John Hilkevitch @ Tribune)
New day dawning: It’s a good time to be in Chicago (Site Selection Magazine)
Team NEO gives site consultants a tour of Northeast Ohio’s assets (Plain Dealer)
Retain grads, experts warn (Detroit News)
Michigan’s best and brightest bailing out on state (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Ann Arbor entices entrepreneurs (Free Press)
How Michigan is working to keep auto jobs (Gov. Granholm @ Newsweek)
Granholm: State budget in dire shape (Detroit News)
Special Report: Simon says, city does (IBJ)
Price tag for I-69 growing (IBJ)
Ronald Reagan extension is a go (Indy Star)
US 31 construction sequencing plan (INDOT)
Web site of the week: Art Babble (San Francisco Chronicle)
Wednesday, April 15th, 2009
As part of my Burnham Plan centennial celebration, I was recently prompted to ponder what made this plan successful. (Let us put aside for future postings the question of whether it was in reality a success). I started creating a list of attributes of the plan I think contributed to its success. Interestingly, all of these are lessons for today’s planners and are often overlooked. So let’s consider some of them.
1. It was a private sector, business led initiative. I hear people today moan about the feckless political leadership in their cities. But Chicago wasn’t immune from this in the early 20th century. The rest of the civic leadership didn’t wait around for the city politicians to get their act together. Rather, the Merchants Club of Chicago (which later merged with the Commercial Club, a still existing organization) stepped in and sponsored the creation of a plan that they saw as critical to overcoming the challenges the city faced at the time and propelling its future growth.
This is very relevant today. Most cities have some corporate/academic vehicle that is often a prime force in local initiatives. This is the logical place for such a civic strategy to be developed today. However, I might suggest that unlike in Burnham’s day, having a broader stakeholder base is critical. Thus involving cultural institutions or other non-business groups, plus at least some form of broader community input is essential today. But I still think that it is generally the business community that is the likely sponsor for any plan.
2. It took two years to create. The Burnham Plan was not an overnight creation. It took a lot of research and deliberation. Today, it would likely take even longer. This is another reason why politicians aren’t likely to be the driving force. They need solutions that show results within the election cycle. They need to cut ribbons, not produce three year studies.
3. It was well funded. While fundraising wasn’t a snap, the business community of Chicago and its wealthy elite subscribed in sufficient quantity to enable the production of a first class plan.
4. It included a lot of focus and investment in a high quality of design in the output. Notably, Burnham & Co. commissioned bespoke artwork for their renderings. They knew they needed first rate renderings and an authoritative final report to have credibility.
5. The practical side of getting things done wasn’t ignored. The final report included a lengthy appendix by a local lawyer talking about all the legal aspects of the plan. Notably, it anticipates the Kelo decision nearly a century later. These guys put a lot of thought into how they would actually action the plan.
6. They followed through with a long term sales and delivery program. This included extensive marketing and PR over the long term, including the creation of a children’s edition of the plan that was taught in the public schools. They created the Chicago Plan Commission as a semi-private agency to oversee getting the plan done. And so on.
7. The wisely glommed onto things that were already under consideration or had already been done. A lot of things are credited to the Burnham Plan that really pre-dated it. The lakefront park system was already partially constructed prior to the plan, which only recommended doing more. The Michigan Ave. bridge was already a fierce topic of contemporary debate. And so on. This not only imbued the plan with the patina of those successes, it helped to seed a holistic vision around something that people could imagine since they were living it.
8. The plan had a good mix of both the concrete and the conceptual. There were some very specific items such as the Michigan Ave. bridge while others such as the ring road network were more conceptual. This was good for a couple reasons. One, for those who don’t think conceptually or futuristically, the tangible gave them something to latch onto. Two, the tangible items could be picked off on the short term, to show progress and get people believing in the plan.
These items are good, but don’t tell the whole story. I recently was fairly critical of the Cincinnati Agenda 360 plan, and it incorporated most of the attributes above.
No, one additional key ingredient was Burnham himself. He didn’t even necessarily do the work, but he had a key quality. He was someone who was an urban visionary and forward thinker, but combined that with enormous credibility and social clout among Chicago’s elite. This is the rare combination. Burnham had long been the face of a successful architecture practice. His World’s Columbian Exhibition was a huge success that gave him massive credibility. And he had done city plans for other places such as Cleveland. He was trusted and taken seriously by the elite. So when he proposed ideas that might not have appeal otherwise, his personal credibility could carry the day, could resolve conflict, etc.
This is what is missing. There are urban visionaries and there are power brokers, but seldom are the two combined into one flesh. That was what made Burnham different. In a Christ-like way, he was two persons in one body. That, I think, is perhaps the key reason that Chicago not only created a plan, but actually implemented a lot if it and was successful from it. It takes a combination of power and vision. The ability to get things done with the wisdom to know what it is we should do. Absent the emergence of a Burnham, or perhaps a Lennon-McCartney type partnership, it seems unlikely that a plan of similar impact will be produced in any city any time soon.
I’m of course interested to hear additional perspectives on what made Burnham’s Plan unique. And yes, I’ll listen to the case that it is at least partially self-mythologizing on the part of Chicago.
To close, I’d be remiss if I did not say that a plan like Burnham’s wouldn’t be appropriate for today’s world. We’re at the dawn of the 21st century, not the 20th. And we are in the early days of the true post-modern, post-industrial era, not the middle age of that previous order like Burnham was. A plan of today, of the now, would be very different and recognize that we are in a very different world. More to come on that in future posts.