Friday, August 7th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Rise and Rise of the Chicago Loop

There’s been a string of big good news items about the Chicago Loop economy recently. Willis Group moved into the Sears Tower and dared to claim the naming rights for themselves. Then United Airlines announced it was also relocating to the Sears Tower. This one is huge news because it is a relocation from the suburbs of 2,800 employees and is a full scale traditional HQ, not just a small executive HQ. Greg Hinz over at Crain’s Chicago Business discusses the implications.

The steady flow of businesses into the Loop – companies like Boeing and MillerCoors among others – shows that the Loop is back as the premier business address in Chicagoland, period. No longer is it just for finance, law, banking, government, and tourism. It’s a full service business location.

This is fueled by many factors but among them is the flow of professionals back to the city. These people do not want to spend their lives in cars reverse commuting the burbs. I personally know people who have quit jobs specifically because they did not want to reverse commute. Also, given the spread out region and horrible congestion, the Loop is one of the only areas you can get to from anywhere.

The growth of business in the Loop looks likely to only continue growing over time.

Cincy Streetcar Follow-Up

My post on Cincinnati streetcars got a lot of attention and many hits. Thanks to everyone who passed it around, and also to the Business Courier of Cincinnati for linking it.

While the Cincinnati Enquirer editorialized against the street car, the Business Courier supports it.

Also, the Enquirer has a long article that talks in depth about the matter.

Entrepreneur Mag Best Cities for Startups – Youngstown!

Entrepreneur Magazine named its ten best cities to start a business. Two Midwest cities made the list. One of them, Madison, Wisconsin, would come as a surprise to no one. But the other was Youngstown, Ohio. Yes, Youngstown.

Ordinarily I’d be skeptical about something like this. Youngstown is obviously a troubled city. For example, its metro area is experiencing the steepest population decline of any metro area over 500,000 in the Midwest.

But despite this, or perhaps because of it, Youngstown is a cauldron of creativity. They are famous for their planned shrinkage movement, for example, making them one of the few Midwest cities to face up to their diminished standing the world. But there is more to it than this. The challenges facing Youngstown are so huge, and the traditional approaches failed so badly, that leaders were open to innovative, even radical ideas from elsewhere. As Jim Cossler puts it in the article:

“Youngstown fell so far, traditional community leaders threw up their hands and told the younger generation, ‘You guys try,’” Cossler says. “The new generation is envisioning things we wouldn’t have talked about 10 years ago.” Cossler points to the work of the area’s dynamic congressman and energetic young mayor as examples. “They said, ‘Let’s clean the slate and start over again,’” he says. “There’s a radical transformation going on here right now.”

In city after city across the Midwest, enthusiastic young leaders find themselves frozen out by strong power structures who are not that interested in new ideas. But not in Youngstown. For example, it should come as no surprise that it was Youngstown, not Pittsburgh, that stepped up and not only adopted but funded Jim Russell’s ideas about a diaspora based economic development effort.

Youngstown has a small but enthusiastic community of activists, bloggers, etc., such as I Will Shout Youngstown. You might say, “Big deal, so does every Midwest city.” True, but in Youngstown they are helping to actually drive civic policy and development.

Defend Youngstown has a roundup of the buzz around this.

Another Indy Econdev Winner

This week we learned of another economic development winner in Indianapolis as the city decided to pull a repeat on some past successes and start targeting life sciences conventions:

The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association is putting together an all-star corporate consortium to make the city a hub for medical and life sciences conventions, meetings and trade shows.

The ICVA began running the initiative full-speed this year and already has signed deals to bring 40 medical meetings to Indianapolis through 2015, including annual meetings for the American Association of Diabetes Educators in 2012 and the American College of Sports Medicine and American Chemical Society in 2013.

This is a great example of trying to find synergies between the different strategies Indy is pursuing. Not only are these conventions good in their own right, but it gives the city an opportunity to showcase itself to companies and people in a key target industry. I would not be surprised if, as with amateur sports and music business, Indy isn’t also targeting selected non-profit businesses associated with these conventions to relocate.

The Midwest Character and Geography

Jim Russell points us at a blog post at The Pitch in Kansas City complaining about a description of the Midwest by author Jonathan Franzen. I don’t know the reason this guy doesn’t like it, because I thought it was pretty good, so thought I’d repeat it here:

If you ask what the Midwest means to me, it’s that myth of an innocence prolonged and then abruptly lost. … And somehow this dynamic seems more like a Midwestern thing than a Lower East Side thing or a South Boston thing. I’m not enough of a social historian to have a good theory of why exactly this is true. I do know that, for a long time, you really were isolated in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, or Webster Groves, Missouri, or Oak Park, Illinois — it really was a long way from the Lower East Side. This is all rapidly changing with our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs, but some of the social and mental habits that grew out of isolation may persist in succeeding generations, leaving vestiges of a “Midwestern” character …

[On what counts as the Midwest:] Indiana is a special case. Evansville is the South. Fort Wayne is still Rust Belt, Valparaiso is definitely Midwest. That’s actually an interesting way to approach it–to define where my boundaries of the Midwest run. I think it begins around Columbus, Ohio — Thurberville — and stretches west. Anything below I-70 is basically southern. And that’s true right across Missouri. My Midwest is bounded on the south by I-70. It stretches all the way to about an hour east of Denver and includes pretty much all of the Great Plains states north of I-70. … You can take all of Kansas, some of Oklahoma, too. But not, for example, downstate Illinois. You start hearing the South in people’s voices. They don’t sound like Tom Brokaw anymore.

High Speed Rail

High speed rail isn’t just a point of debate in the US, it’s also being fiercely argued in the UK. Guardian columnist Will Hutton is a passionate supporter:

Economic growth and development are driven by what innovation theorists call general purpose technologies. A general purpose technology is one that transforms economies and societies. The wheel was a general purpose technology. So was the Portuguese invention of the three-masted caravel in the 15th century that allowed ships to become ocean- going, leading to European long-distance trade, colonisation and the emergence of a rich European merchant class. So was the printing press. And so was the railway in the 19th century.

Railways did not just get passengers from A to B faster than horses. The railway consolidated nations and national markets. It created new cities and city suburbs. It allowed the European powers to open up their colonies. Rail transformed the military geography of the world. For the first time, people en masse began to move away from their home towns and villages, massively enlarging the gene pool. Railways, like the internet and biotechnology today, were a genuine general purpose technology.

The intriguing question is whether high-speed rail will be as transformative. My hunch is that it will.

It has been obvious for the last 20 years that cities and city regions are emerging as the new drivers of economic growth, especially if their hinterland has a high proportion of industries requiring a lot of brainpower. These fast-growing “ideopolises” tend, as research at the Work Foundation underlines, to trade with each other rather than poorer, less creative cities.

What the European high-speed network will do is to create a network of fast-growing ideopolises, breaking down borders and exponentially opening up traffic. You need to be on the line…What is needed is political leadership, some dynamism and willingness to take risks.

India’s View on “Brain Drain” and Talent Attraction

Jim Russell points us to a great article on how India looks at the matter of talent and people leaving. While they are keen to attract talent, they take a much more sophisticated look at this than most Midwest cities and states – and have done so for 20 years. It explains a lot about the success of India:

A little over two decades ago, when the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi — during a visit to the United States to meet with President Ronald Reagan — was asked about the flight of top professional talent from India to the US, he said it was not a ‘brain drain’ as it was being dubbed, but a ‘brain bank’ for India to draw upon whenever necessary.

Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar was asked the very same question by the members of The Indus Entrepreneurs, Washington, DC chapter during an interaction.

She, too, like the former prime minister said, it was not a brain drain, but rather “brain circulation”. “What goes around, comes around, and I have seen that movement of Indians to other countries has had a very positive impact back in India.”

Expanding on this point Shankar said, once Andhra Pradesh was one of the most backward states in India. But now it is one of the most developed, thanks to the engineers, technical experts and scientists who came to the US, gathered useful knowledge and then exported that to their home state.

Shankar also pointed out that thanks to globalisation and connectivity, “no one is completely cut off. There is a two-way flow of ideas, knowledge, and investments, and all that helps to circulate rather than act as a brain drain.”

National and International Roundup

Tammi Jones has a great synopsis of the perspective on civic success put forward by CEO’s for Cities. It’s a report on a speech by Carol Coletta. Definitely worth a great. Good stuff in there about the talent dividend, etc.

City Journal reviews a couple of books discussing the legacy of Jane Jacobs (via @GenslerOnCities)

World Changing contemplates the future of the suburb (via @GenslerOnCities)

A columnist in the LA Times suggests public transit improvements will be tough sell in the US (via @OtisWhite)

An interesting look at some of the latest research on global cities. Hong Kong is coming on strong.

You’ve heard of the Internet Movie Database. Well, now there is the Internet Bike Database, with over 30,000 bicycle pictures. (via @ig_fahrrad)

The economy is derailing mixed use projects in Atlanta. (via @OtisWhite)

More Midwest

A moving story of one Elkhart family’s struggle with unemployment in this economy (via @jwalkersmith)

Can anyone run this place? – An article from Slate on the race for mayor in Flint, Michigan. For the record, Walling won. Via Politics and Place

Illinoisans ticketed more often in Wisconsin (Tribune) – Film at 11.
Railroad projects gain steam across Chicago (Tribune)

Cincinnati hub is shrinking (AJC) – via Nullspace

City voters approve income tax increase (Columbus Underground)
Teenagers build affordable LEED Platinum home (Green Building Advisor)

Detroit’s culture of corruption springs from the grass roots (Nolan Finley @ Detroit News)
Michigan loses if other states rebound (Nolan Finley @ Detroit News)

Toll road lease tumbles in value (IBJ)

Bon Appetit! America’s top restaurant cities (Forbes) – Louisville gets a mention (via @PossibilityCity)

Twin Cities
Cracks develop in support for Central Corridor LRT (Star Tribune)

Post Script

Here’s a nice video on the Miller House and Gardens, the Eero Saarinen designed house in Columubs, Indiana recently acquired by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This is one of only two houses ever designed by Saarinen (via Atomic Indy)

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Globalization, Talent Attraction, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis, London, Youngstown

9 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. thundermutt says:

    In terms of his social geography, I'd say Franzen hit it right on for Indiana except for that "rust belt" idea.

    I'd quibble if he was distinguishing "rust belt" from Midwest. There, he's wide of the mark, as the "Midwest" has for the past couple of generations had this schizophrenic view of itself as small-town agrarian, when in reality it's small-town and big-city industrial (at least east of Des Moines and Minneapolis).

    That schizo view probably comes from our agrarian roots, as one must go only a couple of generations back in most Midwesterners' families to find people who grew up on farms (before they went into the service or got degrees or "got on at GM"). Descendants of farm families have a soft spot for "the old home place", especially when a cousin still owns it. This, I suspect, does color our self-notion slightly toward the small-town agrarian view.

  2. Michael says:

    Since when is Evansville part of the South? While it would obviosly seem more Southern than Northern Indiana, it is definitely a Midwestern city. The Ohio is almost an international border for cultural and language diffences it creates.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Like United, Miller and Boeing, I'd also move to the Loop if you can me money.

    But yes I've not taken a job in Oak Brook, because I would have had to live out there.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Meh. The amount of nostalgia New York has for the early 20th century is scary. It's less obvious than agrarian romanticism because in the early 20th century New York was already a big industrial city, but the clinging to the values of yore and hatred of progress is every bit as bad.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    On another note: railways did carry people faster than horses. Before the Transcontinental Railroad was built, it took six months to get from coast to coast. Afterward, it took one week. This was every bit of a game changer as the airlines' ability to get people from New York to Los Angeles in six hours.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A lot of the midwest msa's are growing even when the principle city in the msa isn't growing. (St. Louis, Kansas City). That got me wondering about differences in outcome. (Why is Chicago's core doing so well when Detroit's has done so poorly – I know some of it has to do with collapse of auto industry and manufacturing – but Chicago was pretty exposed to those industries too. But I am wondering more about planning responses to this issue.

    Is there some sort of urban growth boundary to limit exurban growth and redirect the growth inward (like Portland)? Or perhaps legislation that has that affect (similiar to what California did with SB 375?).


  7. thundermutt says:

    Phil, off the cuff I'd suggest that the existence of three things– a good public transit network in Chicago which is focused on The Loop, plus the existence of auto traffic congestion on all the principal freeways, plus the presence of well-tended first-ring neighborhoods and suburbs (the bungalow belt)– all work together to impose an invisible growth boundary in Chicago. The "tipping point" factor may be that it's as easy to commute in from nice neighborhoods as to commute out.

    This is not to suggest that there is no sprawl in Chicagoland, only that there is a force of "economic gravity" to The Loop that makes it possible to densify the core rather than building even more edge cities.

  8. JG says:

    Those interested in improving interstate transportation and intercity congestion due to rail crosses should watch this video from a few months ago. The MWHSR has embedded it on their BLOG.

    The TRIBUNE article (included) said $320 million have been dedicated to Chicago for freight rail infrastructure upgrades. I say this is still TOO little for the importance here nationally to quickly and CHEAPLY moving goods cross country.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    New York and Chicago's cores are doing relatively well because those cities developed early enough to have large core-oriented heavy rail systems. Other cities were either too small, such as Philadelphia and Boston, or developed too late, such as Los Angeles.

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