Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Why So Many Southern Cities Are Successful

[ This article is very, very draft and really would require a lot of research and analysis to do properly, so please keep in mind its provisional nature. It’s almost just the sketch of a concept ]

Why have so many Southern cities proven to be vastly more demographically and economically successful than those of the Midwest? When you look at the problems that supposedly plague the Midwest – low educational attainment, poor physical fitness, minimalistic government services, unsightly built environments – you find that the South is actually in worse shape on many of them. Yet it outperforms.

Let’s not overstate the case. Much of the South is impoverished and not successful. Cities like Memphis and Birmingham are not on many people’s lists to emulate. But the list of successful cities is impressive: Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Raleigh all come to mind. Now these are sprawlburgs to be sure and not the types of urban environment many would want to live in. But given their growth they clearly appeal to a lot of folks, and let’s face it, most Midwestern cities are sprawlburgs as well.

Conventional wisdom would ascribe this to climate, low taxes, and lower cost non-union labor. And there is some of this to be sure. But I’d argue that cultural factors play a major role as well, notably the historic aristocratic character of the South, combined with a clear-eyed self-awareness these cities have about their standing in the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville is justly famous for his “Democracy in America”. Beyond just being arguably the greatest book ever written on America, it is also notable for its contrast of the aristocratic social state and the democratic one. Tocqueville was a great admirer of democracy, but he also saw clearly that with the passing of aristocracy, something would be lost.

Aristocracy was based on hereditary class divisions, rooted in a particular geography. For those at the top, their greatness was self-evident. This led to a strong sense of self-regard and belief in the possibilities of what they could achieve. As Tocqueville noted, “In aristocratic society, the class which gives the tone to opinion, and has the supreme guidance of affairs, being permanently and hereditarily placed above the multitude, naturally conceives a lofty idea of itself and of man. It loves to invent for him noble pleasures, to carve out splendid objects for his ambition. Aristocracies often commit very tyrannical and very inhuman actions; but they rarely entertain grovelling thoughts; and they show a kind of haughty contempt of little pleasures, even whilst they indulge in them. The effect is greatly to raise the general pitch of society. In aristocratic ages vast ideas are commonly entertained of the dignity, the power, and the greatness of man.”

Now the South was not an aristocracy, but its slave economy and plantation culture gave it some of the characteristics of one. The plantation owner was a like a feudal lord, and the slaves his serfs. And the class gulf between the two unbridgeable. Plantations homes even resembled manor houses. Indeed, even long after the passing of slavery, many of the places populated by hereditary blue bloods are Southern (and of course Northeastern). Places like Mobile or Charleston. Places where your pedigree still matters.

Among the aristocratic characteristics that survive in the South today are an immense attachment to native soil, and exceptional pride of place. This reaches its apex, of course, in Texas.

Then you have the Irish and Scotch-Irish heritage of much of the south, and its clear influence on the social state. James Webb in his book “Born Fighting” notes the importance of this culture and its fierce individualism and warrior spirit to America. Other cultural stereotypes might include a lack of concern with aesthetics (often remarked upon), hot headedness and quickness to take offense, and frugality. Perhaps the greatest prominent embodiment of this was Scotch-Irish President Andrew Jackson, who famously fought several duels.

Combine the aristocratic traits with those of the Scotch-Irish and you get the Southern city culture. Namely, places with a significant attachment to their particular locale, high ambition, and an in your face braggadocio and swagger about it all.

The contrast with the Midwest could not be more clear. The Midwest, largely settled by Germans and Scandinavians, is historically less individualistic, with more permeable social class, less attachment to place, and with a premium on modesty, decorum, etc. As Tocqueville noted, with a democratic social state the average state of man is higher than in an aristocracy. The worst abuses and excesses do not exist. But nor are lofty heights reached. The lows are higher but the highs are lower.

What this results in is Southern cities that are hungry and ambitious, and Midwestern cities satisfied with the status quo and which value the comfortable middle. I’ve noted before that the failure of the Midwest is to a great extent a failure of ambition. I’m reminded again of what Bob Morgan, head of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce said:

“To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.”

It’s tough to imagine a Midwest city other than Chicago having this attitude. (Interestingly, the origin of many Chicagoans is different from that of the rest of the Midwest. There were huge numbers of Irish immigrants (similar to the South) and also a lot of eastern Europeans. What role did that play in shaping the character of Chicago?).

When you don’t even want to win the prize, it’s hard to do so. Most Midwest cities are just happy to be here. Southern cities have an unquenchable thirst to succeed. Perhaps neither way is right or wrong, but clearly the Midwest way is not economically successful today and people are voting with their feet to move South.

One other difference I notice, and I have no clue where this comes from, is that despite the bravado of these Southern cities, they are keenly aware of their deficiencies, often to a far greater extent than the Midwest. I’m known as a tough grader, and when I write about Midwest cities I frequently get dissent from the local booster clubbers. But when I wrote a couple of pieces on Nashville, noting not just the many good things about it but also its weaknesses, the people on the Nashville message boards said, “Yup, you just about nailed it.” Nashville might be printing up t-shirts saying they are the “New Los Angeles”, but they also know that they are lacking the high culture department, for example, and are peddling hard to catch up. In this case, they built the brand new Schermerhorn Center to house their orchestra and also have spent a lot of money to boost its budget and significantly raise its artistic levels.

Most Midwest cities seem oblivious to the world around them. They will talk about how great they are to be sure, but this is a hollow boosterism. It’s not based on any desire for greatness. Rather, it is just a marketing line. A lot of these places wouldn’t know world class if it landed on their heads. The world is passing them by and they don’t even know it. Again, Richard Longworth noted how Midwest cities and states have no idea what is going on next door to them, much less around the country and around the world.

Is there hope for change in the Midwest? Time will tell. But it is imperative to up the ambition level and benchmark realistically against world, not to just sit there sullenly while Midwest cities sink into the mire. Given the deep historic roots these behaviors seem to have, however, change is likely to prove very difficult. But if the impoverished, racist South could change and turn it around, it doesn’t seem impossible that the Midwest eventually could as well, particularly if some outside forces broke its cities out of their current pattern.

Topics: Urban Culture

58 Responses to “Why So Many Southern Cities Are Successful”

  1. David says:

    Alon, measured by home county population the picture is different. MSA (imo) measures the sprawl-abilty to a big degree.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    David, I tend to lump Louisville in with the Midwest in my blog. It is a southern city in some respects, but also was a heavy industrial center. It's probably a bit like Birmingham in that regard, and thus has more Rust Belt profile.

    Louisville's growth is steady, but hardly anything like Charlotte, Atlanta, or even Nashville. It's outpacing a lot of Midwest areas, but not all of them.

    I prefer MSA population. Core county is useful in some respects, but Jefferson County isn't a fast growing county at all.

  3. David says:

    Another set of statistics that could measure strength of local economy and also the likely strength of a future economy. Q2 CBD/Suburban Office vacancy rates (Class A).
    Charlotte CBD 6.7 Burbs 14.9
    Cincinnati CBD 17.4 Burbs 23.0
    Columbus CBD 15.3 Burbs 15.5
    Indianapolis CBD 15.5 Burbs 22.5
    Cleveland CBD 16.3 Burbs 10.5
    Kansas City CBD 22.0 Burbs 17.0
    Louisville CBD 8.2 Burbs 16.8
    Minneapolis/St. Paul CBD 17.8 Burbs 20.5
    Nashville CBD 19.1 Burbs 13.0

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Q2 rates are heavily affected by the recession. You should run this analysis for a period of growth, or perhaps averaged over a business cycle, in order to control for the facts that a) right now the recession's affecting the suburbs more than central cities and b) some regions (like Minneapolis, Charlotte, and any auto industry city) were decimated whereas others (like the Interior West and Upstate New York) barely even registered the recession.

  5. David says:


    Here is the link:

    Not sure I understand your comment about the interior West? Las Vegas, Tuscon, Phoenix real estate was/is very hard hit during this recession.

    Interesting that you say Charlotte and MSP are 'decimated' yet they are tauted as shining standards of growth elsewhere in the comments.

    As far as 'auto industry city'…again a bit confused…Nashville is also tauted as a shining standard of growth and it is an 'auto city' (home of shuttered Saturn and Nissan)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Texas' independence was won by American southerners who used force of arms to import slavery.

    Given the experience of Bleeding Kansas I'd say "Can't get more southern than that!"

  7. Alon Levy says:

    David, I'm talking about cities further north than Las Vegas, especially Salt Lake City and Denver. Those, as well as the rural areas of the Plains and the Interior West, are barely even registering a recession. The same is more or less true for Texas.

    MSP and Charlotte have generally been successful, but this recession hit them hard. Charlotte's metro area has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and MSP has the highest foreclosure rate in the Midwest. Upstate New York, which is bleeding population but I'm not sure how Nashville's doing right now, but since like the rest of the South its auto industry is mostly foreign owned, it's less impacted by the failure of GM and Chrysler than Detroit and Cleveland.

  8. Matt says:

    I just came across this today, but felt compelled to comment. Having grown up in southern Virginia and lived as an adult in both Indy and Raleigh, I have some thoughts.

    There are many positive aspects of both southern and midwestern cities, and I think it is OK that they excel at different things. For example, it is much easier to find an older or historic house in a walkable neighborhood (that is affordable) in Indy than it is in Raleigh, because there is simply a larger supply available. But if you're interested in sprawling suburbia, I think you can find that in equal amounts in both areas (if possibly a slightly newer, spiffier version in the south). I would argue that the downtown core of Indy is MUCH stronger than the downtown core of any city in NC could ever hope to be (with the possible exception of Asheville, a smaller touristy city in the mountains) – Charlotte is making strides to improve its downtown, but it has a long way to go to match what Indy has (which, in reality, still isn't as strong as it could/should be). Downtown Raleigh and Durham are small potatoes and always will be (primarily because the job, retail, and entertainment centers in that area are in suburban office parks and malls, not downtown). This type of thing also has implications in terms of transit investments (the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area has had a very rough time trying to justify investments in transit due to the spread out and multi-centric land development pattern that primarily supports auto access).

    On the other hand, the south isn't as bad as some other commenters have indicated (at least in my opinion). Yes, poverty is an issue in the areas outside cities (especially in the more isolated areas like the mountains and the coastal plain, as most southern cities are located in the piedmont region). But the poverty is not universal – several smaller cities (Asheville NC and Wilmington NC come to mind) are actually doing pretty good. The real problem seems to be in the very isolated small towns and rural areas (one interesting side note: the definition of "rural" is decidedly different between the south and midwest, as most "rural development" in the midwest seems to be focused on small towns and the odd farmhouse here and there – in the south, there are relatively fewer definable "towns" and more houses and businesses randomly scattered about the countryside).

    I think the most notable difference I see is in the attitude people have about improving their situation. When I lived in Indy, I cannot count the number of people who told me they wanted to "get out" of there ASAP, and the number of people who were shocked that somebody who wasn't from there and didn't have family there would actually want to move there. Invariably people would say, "Why did you leave NC? I wish I could live somewhere like that." On the other hand, in my experience, people in NC and VA generally couldn't imagine moving away from the area (perhaps to another city within the region, but certainly not to somewhere else). Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but these seem to be the general sentiments. I think the question that needs to be asked is "why?"

    Also just a quick note – while I agree that the education system (especially higher ed) in many midwestern states is good, I must take exception to the accusation made by some commenters that it is not as good in the south. Having gone to schools in both NC and VA, I can say that the higher ed systems there are very strong (I fact, probably stronger than what I've seen in Indiana – nothing against IU, PU, and BSU). Just had to say it.

    And I agree that Northern VA is not part of the south, but the rest of Virginia is. One commenter asked if there was an example of a southern city with relatively large "urban" legacy costs that has still been successful in growth – I think an interesting one to look at might be Richmond VA (a mid-sized city, for sure, but one with a remarkably "urban" feel to it, versus the more suburban style typical in most southern cities).

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