Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Replay: Failure of Ambition

[ I am re-running this article for two reasons. One, after Chicago failed to win in its quest to host the Olympics, it’s worth reminding us that there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and aiming for the top. You won’t always win, but if you never get in the game to begin with, you are guaranteed to fail. I believe in stretch goals. If you don’t fail to achieve at least a few of your ambitions, then you probably didn’t aim high enough. As Theodore Roosevelt famously put it, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

That doesn’t mean the ambition is a substitute for covering the basics. Far from it. I’ve long said the mark of a great city is in how it treats the ordinary, not the special. A handful of monuments or events don’t make a great city. But nor does a steady diet of the mediocre. Man does not live by bread alone. I don’t think there is any conflict between high ambition and taking care of every day business. A great city needs to do both. Nor does this mean you can’t criticize or take issue with any particular ambition. “Make no small plans” is not a get out of jail free card.

The second reason is for the Midwest to enjoy a little Charlotte schadenfreude. Burgh Diaspora pointed us at this piece asking questions about the future of Charlotte. “The paper is filled every day with announcements on building loans for both commercial and residential real estate in default. The Building Cranes are disappearing. Projects are stopped in mid construction. The lot around the corner from my house that was supposed to be a high end luxury townhouse complex but hasn’t had a worker on it in over six months. Pink slips are still handed out, bonuses aren’t what they used to be. No luxury auto and jewelry displays this past Spring. All of the finance committees at the private schools are worried about next years enrollment as the students’ parents are transferred or pink slipped.” And, “The mayor ran an ill-fated campaign for Governor so the last of the Charlotte Trinity is gone. Charlotte is a ship without a captain.” See Jim’s take – Charlotte Bust – as well. And remember it since I’m taking his core idea for my next post :)

This article originally ran on September 28, 2008 ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Charlotte

11 Responses to “Replay: Failure of Ambition”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    I remember how this was one of the first posts on your website I read. My response then was along the lines of, great, North Carolina underspends on education, so it can keep taxes low and attract people from elsewhere.

    My comment about the Olympics is the same. Chicago's neighborhood groups were not very supportive of the effort, because of the displacement it was going to lead to. It's no different from how Sydney used the 2000 Olympics as an excuse to keep Aborigines out of the city, except in a sanitized "This is Australian culture" form, and how Salt Lake City ended up having to bribe IOC members to win.

    Sometimes even a failed Olympic bid creates displacement and corruption. New York decided to go ahead with a political handout project intended for the Olympics, Hudson Yards. The project was a priority for Bloomberg, and although it fell apart, Bloomberg is still spending $2 billion on extending the subway to its site, defunding other subway extensions serving existing neighborhoods.

    Cities should aim high. But they shouldn't aim at prestige projects; they should aim at living standards. Chicago shouldn't be spending money on the Olympics; it should be spending money on ensuring every resident has access to adequate health care and education and can start a small business and innovate.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, I'm not per se saying that the Olympics are the right thing to shoot for. But I do think you need to shoot for something.

    What is the city you have in mind as a place that decided to forsake prestige projects in favor of the types of investments you suggest?

  3. JG says:

    Aaron, I like these piece and I like the call for ambition. Certainly you and I are both aware of the instances in INDY when projects recieve rave reviews from media, politicians, and the public; that are truly lackluster: case in point, the current convention center expansion.

    However I take issue with mid-sized cities making comparisons between themselves and global cities such as NY, London, and Tokyo. The metro population scales are often off by a magnitude of ten. Cities with metro populations around 1.5 to 2 million should be looking nationally and globally at cities with 2 to 3 (mabye 4) million for inspiration. (I am recalling the Milwaukee Transit powerpoint from last post with pictures of Paris and Beijing alongside those of Milwaukee.) Otherwise those cities look foolishly ambitious. I rather would see midwest cities look to Montreal and Vancouver (great cities) for ideas.

  4. AmericanDirt says:

    With all due respect as to the breadth of your insights, I share the opinion with some of the posters in the past that your view of the Midwest borders on self-flagellation. I can only continue to fixate on the Northeast's many shortcomings because it is the region I know second best. When I left the Midwest for the first time, to move to Philadelphia, I was amazed at how blighted so much of the city was, and how close to blight even the prosperous areas were, primarily because they couldn't escape it. Even the cushy suburbs in Montgomery County PA have a post-industrial county seat in Norristown with some severely distressed areas. Though I never lived there, Baltimore seems largely the same way. Granted, these are not among the chief winners of Northeast, but the attitude in Philly always seemed to be nipping at the heels of Chicago, eager to pick up whatever scraps it left behind. This from the birthplace of our modern democracy.

    I mention the Northeast because its ties to the Midwest are stronger than other regions, and it too seems to suffer from much of the same malaise–aging infrastructure, obsolete housing stock, ossified political boundaries. Yet its exceptions to the norm–specifically Boston, New York and DC–somehow seem to drown out media attention on all the regional failures. No doubt it helps that so much more media is based in Washington and New York, and they hate to dwell on the misery in their own back yards. Connecticut and New Jersey, two of the wealthiest states, do not have a single truly vibrant freestanding city among them. Ohio, though far less wealthy in aggregate, has a stronger economy in Columbus than either of these do. And what about upstate New York? Maybe my own senses are deceiving me, and maybe GDP growth of Northeast cities belies their persistently sluggish population figures. But I remain convinced that one can dissect the problems of the Midwest and draw many valid conclusions. A failure of ambition may be one of them, but I do not think this sentiment is unique to the Midwest, nor particularly pronounced there.

  5. Moderator says:

    Start with the small scale stuff – support more blogs like this one (Streetsblog Detroit, anyone?) and use new websites like SeeClickFix.com that allow citizens, govt, advocates and media to collaborate on getting things fixed & improving the quality of life.

    Cities need to be more efficient and more livable if they are going to come back.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, I think Tokyo is doing somewhat better on the "Build things because we need them rather than because we can build them" metric than New York, London, and Paris. Mumbai is doing much better than Shanghai on the same metrics. Seoul and Hong Kong seem to be doing okay, too. In the US I think Los Angeles is less into showing off than New York, the Bay Area, and even Chicago, but I'm not sure – all I know is that its current rail transportation projects are intended to improve transportation rather than to increase people's prestige.

    Overall, no great city manages to avoid the prestige problem. Every group in power wants more power, and once a region attains global city status, the best way for the local leaders to increase their own power is to build monuments to themselves. Those leaders know that they won't be remembered for their achievements on health care or poverty reduction, but for what they built. This is especially bad in cities perceived as rich, like New York, the Bay Area, and Paris, where the upper class can stay cocooned in its neighborhoods and never step into the poorer areas further out.

  7. the urban politician says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with AmericanDirt's post and I wish more people would come out and say what he just did.

  8. cdc guy says:

    American Dirt's mention of Norristown and Philadelphia stirs my own memories from a generation ago, and of the recent mentions here of Digby Baltzell's book comparing and contrasting Philly and Boston in their development up to that point. One aspect of Baltzell's argument was very similar to Aaron's: the Quaker mindset of "quietude" and modesty held Philly back, while the Calvinist ethic drove Boston forward.

    Regarding the Midwest: remember Indy hosted the Pan-Am games (and built the facilities to support them during the 80's); during the skyscraper boom of the 90's, Indianapolis managed to raise what was then the tallest building between Chicago and Atlanta. In this decade the focus has been upon becoming a serious destination for meetings and conventions through massive expansion of our tourist/visitor infrastructure. Not exactly a failure of ambition or an embodiment of the "take what we can get" mindset.

  9. matthew_c says:

    Is there any other midwestern city with big ambition ?
    Toronto maybe, but union infested and really only holding it's own.
    China and India are going to make North America look like Europe within 20 years. Nothing will stop this passing of the torch.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Toronto is growing slowly, but it's growing. It's the only non-Sunbelt city in North America that's never lost population. The complaints about city stagnation come mostly from the fact that the suburbs are growing faster, in much the same way Brooklyn grew much faster than Manhattan in the late 19th century.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I see nothing wrong with a city collectively having high ambitions, but the better use of resources would be to strive to be the best city for its current residents rather than trying to immitate the big developments and plans of a larger city.

    I just completed living in Charlotte for the past year after having lived in larger cities like DC, NY and LA. I left after only a year and hated every minute in Charlotte. It never felt like a city, but rather like an overgrown suburb with a bland densifying center. I don't mean to bash Charlotte, it is pleasant enough, and it's trying to correct some of its past mistakes, but I'm not sure it is the right model for mid-western cities to emulate.

    Charlotte is little more than a densely built office park, with a few scattered older buildings rescued from obscurity, surrounded by acres of parking and a few sports facilities thrown in. A few new condos and mixed use projects promise to keep afloat the bars and restaurants built for the banker crowd that populate the office towers that make up the 4 or 5 central downtown blocks. Throw in a few cultural institutions (but no real urban parks to speak of). This is surrounded by an inner freeway loop. The only remaining urban development is some victorian houses in the Fourth Ward and 2 1920 neighborhoods: South End/Dilworth and Midwood Plaza. One can find greater urban diversity and density in the suburbs of Boston or Philly or Chicago or NY than exists in the city of Charlotte.

    Charlotte's tiny lightrail line that won't reach the airport for another 15 or 20 years is a welcome though feeble effort. They have been improving the city center compared to what it was BUT PLEASE do not hold this city up as a model for midwestern cities. Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinatti all exceed Charlotte (I've never been to Indianapolis). In addition, except for the south side of Charlotte, if you go North or West or East you find vast areas of underutilized indutrial sprawl and dreary neighborhoods, extreme segregation crime and uninspired sprawl. Charlotte is making all the mistakes of Atlanta without any of the charm or history. (Note Charlotte is now the size that Atlanta was in the early 1970's and at that time Atlanta was completeing MARTA). Please look elsewhere for inspiration for your cities.

    Charlotte is so far from being a Chicago or NY or London. It is delusional for anyone to think that it is even achievable for Charlotte to join them. Ask any Charlottean and they will smuggly say that they don't want to be a NY or Atlanta because they have everything they need. Yet everyone I knew wanted to go to DC or Atlanta or NY whenever they needed a city fix, and when I said I had lived in NY or might move to Miami I was routinely asked why would I want to be in Charlotte. Every artist I met regretted being in Charlotte because there was no support for new work and the director of the McColl Gallery (an exceptional amazing institution) noted that their artwork was bought by outsiders from the coasts, not from Charlotte. Admittedly, I have a single person urbanite perspective. If I had a family then I might feel differently. Charlotte is highly segregated and like DC, all the action is in one quadrant (in Charlotte's case it is the southern pie piece between I-77 and Monroe Blvd). Charlotte may be the big city for the Carolinas but it has a long way to go to become a true world class (or even national) city.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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