Monday, July 27th, 2009
A Chicago icon is in danger as Prairie Avenue Books, a huge architectural specialty bookshop, is on the verge of closing. Among its problems: people are coming in to browse then buying for cheaper on the internet. I’ve been to Prairie Avenue (which is actually on Wabash Ave.) and it is definitely worth a trip. The atmosphere is more library than bookshop, which I guess is part of the problem.
This story powerfully illustrates the force of the changing economy and some of the lesser known effects of the internet and globalization. We hear a lot about “spiky cities” and how the global economy is concentrating ever more activity and economic life in a handful of global cities. Chicago is one of those cities, one of the big winners.
Yet even Chicago is not immune to the forces of economic transformation. Any number of its treasured institutions have been hit hard. Chicago once boasted a vibrant independent bookstore scene, but today it is largely chain central, with Amazon.com probably being the bookstore of choice.
More significantly, what this shows is that cities like Chicago are losing their lock on the unique attributes that once made them cultural oases in an otherwise totally drab landscape of “Generica”. Once, if you wanted to be able to buy specialty books about architecture, you almost had to be in once of America’s hand full of top tier cities like Chicago. Now you can be anywhere in America. Amazon.com puts a better selection of architectural books within the grasp of my hometown of Laconia, Indiana (pop. 29) than Chicagoans had access to a mere 10-15 years ago. Amazing.
I used to think about what it would mean practically to relocate from Chicago to a second tier Midwest city. What important things would I have to give up? I identified two major items: live opera and clothing. But heck, today even these aren’t a problem. While most small cities have only tiny regional companies, the Met Opera HD simulcasts beam the best of New York City into the Midwest’s smaller cities. I’ve never actually attended, but I’m told by opera aficionados who have that it is better than being in the theater.
Similarly, sites like styleforum.net and Ask Andy About Clothes give me access to in depth information about everything form the cutting edge of fashion to classic tailored clothing. And the internet lets me order almost anything ready to wear or off the rack from the comfort of my own home.
Think about it. Fifteen years ago if you moved from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio, it would have been like getting exiled. Even getting a decent cup of coffee would probably have been a challenge. Today, that’s no longer the case. While Chicago certainly has more and better stuff than Columbus by a mile, people in Columbus today have access to urban amenities that Chicagoans didn’t only a short while ago. You can enjoy opera, clothing, a nice meal out, great coffee, local agricultural products, etc.
This is the counter-trend of the global city phenomenon. This is the Friedmanesque flattening phenomenon in action on a micro scale and it has important implications.
- It means that, despite the economic advantages that accrue to major global cities, much of the advantage that they previously held over other places has been in fact eroded. The gap between Chicago and Columbus in terms of urban amenities is now a matter of “more and better” whereas before it was a matter of “have and have not”. Those are very different equations to someone evaluating a move.
- Smaller cities should have reason to believe they can attract talent – if they get their act together. Some major knockout criteria have been eliminated. Indeed, we’ve seen the rise of smaller cities like Portland and Austin and Charlotte. The highest value added functions of the global economy may continue to be located in global cities, but there are plenty of other things smaller cities can do if they are able to leverage their new opportunities and attract the talent necessary to pursue it.
While the Amazon effect could theoretically reach anywhere, I don’t see it really filtering down to much smaller places, at least not ones without universities, or to rural and small town areas. It might enable a few people here and there who want those environments to do so, but I believe, and trends seem to back this up, that people who like these urban amenities like the stimulation that comes from being able to enjoy them with others who feel the same way. And the critical mass of people like that has always been in cities. I wrote before about the “aloneness of an urbanophile“, and indeed most urbanites aren’t afraid of doing things by themselves, but few people want to be perpetually like that.
Will the Midwest’s smaller cities find a way to make this work for them? Time will tell.