Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Misreferencing Misoverestimated Population by Chris Briem

[ Chris Briem works at the Program in Urban and Regional Analysis at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research. He’s one the best I know anywhere at urban data, and his personal blog Nullspace is a fantastic, data wonkish take at Pittsburgh. I happened to see this article he wrote there which deflates a lot of the recent enthusiasm created by the latest census population estimates for municipalities. This stuff was news to me, so I’m grateful Chris allowed me to repost it here – Aaron. ]

I know the media confusion story of the day is all about the momentary misreporting that got the story of the Supreme Court ruling yesterday backwards. Yet there was some real misoverestimating across the nation over the latest census numbers that were released yesterday on municipal population estimates for 2011.

Here are some headlines yesterday: 

LATimes: U.S. population in cities growing faster than in suburbs

Chicago Tribune: Census sees Chicago’s population inching up

Boston Herald: U.S. population in cities growing faster than in suburbs, figures show

AP: Big US cities boom as young adults shun suburbs, census estimates show

Lots more just like those. Guess what… Pretty much all of those stories are wrong, or at the very least baseless when you really look at the data.

The census data reported was the 2011 population estimates for incorporated places across the US. So basically cities, towns, boroughs, and townships. We went through this yesterday, but if one read the actual census methodology for this particular data they were quite clear. The subcounty (i.e. municipal) population estimates are mostly based on an estimate of the change in housing units at the municipal level.  The census changed their methodology on how they computed housing unit change for this particular data and as they explain:

To produce subcounty housing unit estimates, we distributed the extrapolated county estimates down to each subcounty area within a county based on 2010 Census proportions.” (emphasis added)

Which means basically that there was very little 2011 data that went into these numbers. Without using new information it begs the question of how much the results should be interpreted. They basically took the estimated county level population data and allocated it to smaller municipalities based on the 2010 Census. They also just assumed that all the growth was even within counties. That assumption, that center cities grew the same as their immediate suburbs, produced the results being reported on everywhere. There appears to be no other supporting analysis for the assumption, it is just an assumption. Other than that, there is no new information here to lead to the conclusions making their way into the headlines.  It may have even tripped up the experts out there because the Census folks explain they changed their methodology just for this particular data release, and are likely to change it again before next year’s update.   But you have to read into their methodology notes to realize the changes for just this year. This is all probably an example of why some of us have the bad habit of reading footnotes first. 

Was there any new growth in cities? Not at all. Or at least there is no data in any of this to tell us one way or another. The Census basically took the growth that likely continued to be mostly in the suburbs and just assumed it was spread evenly between center cities and suburbs within counties across the nation. The result was that it all of a sudden appeared cities were growing faster (or in some cases shrinking less) than they have been in other data. In reality, the new patterns were no more than an artifact of the temporary change in the Census Bureau’s methodology for this data. If they had ever used the same methodology in the past, namely taking county-wide population changes and distributed growth evenly across municipalities the results would have come out the same.  If these municipal estimates had been calculated this way over the last decade, they would have wound up being very much different from the eventual decennial census enumeration.

So the headlines may be ok if there is data on ‘cities’ that are in themselves counties, but those areas are few; or in the case of New York City, multiple counties.  For most cities are only parts of larger counties. Other than Allegheny County I looked at Cook County which includes Chicago and indeed both the city of Chicago and most all of its Cook County suburbs are being reported as having nearly identical growth rates since 2010. I bet that is no more true there than it isn’t here.

The only caveat to any of that is that the data reported does seem to have some new 2011 data on group quarters population incorporated into it, as their methodology says it should. So where there was a recent change in the population of college dorms, military barracks, prisoners are related types of institutions then you are seeing population changes different from the county-wide averages. That appears to me the main source of the disproportionate growth the 2011 data is showing for the City of Pittsburgh. So real growth for sure, but I would be careful in explaining its causes.

So this all may not be as egregious an error as the news cycle we once had in 2000 when  population ‘growth’ Downtown was attributed to a big new influx of young people living in the Golden Triangle in the 1990’s. The truth was that the Allegheny County Jail was rebuilt and expanded in the 1990’s and that expansion more than accounted for a nominal reported increase in Downtown’s residential population. The eventual increase in Downtown’s population would come mostly a decade and several hundred million dollars in subsidies later. Nonetheless, this misuse of Census data is certainly more widespread and likely be misreferenced for years to come.

This post originally appeared in Nullspace on June 29, 2012.

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Who’s Your City?

A couple months back when visiting the home front, my dad and I popped into the excellent New Albanian brewhouse for dinner and microbrews. Sitting outside, I watched various of the Bearded Ones parade in and out with their growlers and thought to myself that hipster culture had invaded even the most blue collar precincts of small city Indiana. Great beer, beards, and tattoos no longer define Portland or any other “cool” city. They are now ubiquitous, which is to say that they are as distinguishing for your city as McDonald’s. (That doesn’t mean they are unimportant – small cities are much more livable than ever today thanks to the vast increase in quality of what’s available there – but they aren’t distinctive).

Alas, too many places seem not to realize this and market themselves as if they are some sort of mini-Brooklyn instead of as who they really are at heart.

Lincoln, Nebraska fell into just this trap. That city just unveiled a new identity and in conjunction with that released a video trying to lure young creatives to the city (if the video doesn’t display, click here – h/t Carl Wohlt):

As Brand New notes of this:

I haven’t been to Lincoln, so I speak as a member of the potential audience Lincoln is trying to attract. Looking solely at the logo and identity, I would think it’s a city led by the high-tech industry — not true — or a city with lots of street intersections and busy interconnected stuff happening all around — not true either, at least not in the way it’s portrayed, which looks more like a high-density metropolis. Neither of these two impressions is what I would like to think of if I were considering moving to Lincoln. Seems like charm, small-town feel, tranquil lifestyle, and creativity are attributes more real to the city yet none of that comes through. The identity is contemporary, I’ll give it that, but it is also quite generic: Replace “Lincoln” with any small size city name (or software company) and the result would be equally effective, or ineffective. I appreciate the ambition of the identity and the message it’s trying to communicate but it just seems to miss the mark, even when there is an arrow pointing at the target.

Bingo. Someone sent me a link to the video which I watched with no context, and my instant reaction was that this could have been any city, anywhere. It’s totally generic imagery. As someone commented, turn off the volume and see if you can figure out what city it is for. Not likely.

I hate to beat up on smaller cities like Lincoln too much. I prefer to go after bigger cities that clearly should know better. But this was a classic example, and I’ll take Lincoln seriously enough to grade it versus the big boys.

I’ve long noted that while companies go to great lengths to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, most cities seem to do just the opposite. They want to convince you that in various ways they are exactly like this, that, or the other really cool city. It’s totally inauthentic and completely ineffective.

To really brand your city you need to go back to that ancient wise inscription – Know Thyself. It’s not easy. It requires a lot of introspection, and digging deep into things that aren’t always easy to uncover. But I’m convinced every city, like every person, has a powerful story to tell.

More on civic branding:
The Authentic City
The Brand Promise of Indianapolis
Learning to Love Naptown
Rebranding Columbus
Don’t Brand Your City
Louisville: Vice City

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Infographic: Sprawl Is Alive and Well

The Atlantic Cities had an article talking about how the housing crash may not have been a game changer in terms of exurban development pattern. It’s worth a read. It also includes this map from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard showing various degrees of suburbanization by metros over the past decade. Not that only a few places showed core population share gain.


Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Video: Selling Bike Culture

Here’s a fun 30 second advert from Hungary promoting cycling to work. The caption is, “You can cure your lack of exercise. Bike to Work!” If the video doesn’t display for you click here.

h/t Copenhagenize

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Regarding Black Urbanism by Pete Saunders

[ Pete Saunders is an urban planner, and an articulate and insightful writer on cities. He also happens to be black. The writings on his blog Corner Side Yard are a mix of great thoughts on general urbanism, and some of the applications to the black urban experience. In the piece below, Saunders asks where the black participation is in the urbanism movement today. Definitely check out his blog where he has some subsequent installments that flesh out his thoughts on the matter – Aaron. ]

African Americans have been perhaps the most urban of American populations for the last half century. With the formation of the Great Migration between 1910 and 1930, and the Second Great Migration between 1940 and 1970, blacks moved from the rural South to urban areas throughout the country – primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Today, many blacks are leaving Northern locales and returning to Southern spots, but they are firmly remaining
urban.

As a result of this transition, African Americans have had a profound impact within the communities they’ve moved to. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, blacks are the majority demographic in 19 of the nation’s 273 cities with more than 100,000 residents, and are between 25 and 50 percent in another 36 cities. Taken to a metropolitan scale, blacks exceed
the 13.6% national proportion of population in eight of the ten largest metropolitan areas, with blacks making up 32.4% of metro Atlanta’s residents, 25.8% of metro DC, and 21.0% of metro Miami. Clearly, blacks have left a significant imprint on America’s cities.

So where are the black urbanists?

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of black elected officials who represent cities and advocate for policies and strategies that will improve them. There are plenty of black activists who passionately speak on matters such as crime, poverty, income inequality, affordable housing, and other special interests that are often perceived as strictly urban issues. And there are many black entrepreneurs who grew up in cities and make an effort to incorporate some semblance of urban policy into their corporate work.

But there is a dire lack of a black voice and perspective in the traditional channels of urbanist dialogue.

When I think of urbanists, I think of two distinct groups of people. The first group consists of intellectual types who are mostly interested in developing ideas to improve the urban form. They often have rather abstract views of cities, and focus on design as the key mover of an improved urban form. They are big proponents of things like walkability, transit use, denser development, and the like.

The second group is often less intellectually-oriented in their approach, but has a laser focus on a special interest they advocate. This group is made up of bike advocates, transit supporters, urban agriculture activists, and other urban special interests. They are also big proponents of walkability, transit use, and denser development, but they strongly feel that getting there means increased bike usage along dedicated bike networks, or heavy- and light-rail transit, or converting vacant land to agricultural use.

In either case, the groups are almost exclusively white.

This has implications on general public views about cities. As mentioned by Aaron Renn (the Urbanophile) nearly three years ago in an article he wrote for New Geography entitled “The White City,” the cities that many hold up as exemplary models for urban development have very few black residents. The usual suspects for progressive cities, like Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin and Denver, not only have small African American populations, but have not been burdened by racial tensions in the way that so many other American cities have.

About three years ago the website Planetizen developed a list of the top 100 urban thinkers. All the names were nominated and voted on by website visitors. Unsurprisingly, there is not a single African American on the list (from my recollection there are only about five that are under the age of 50, but that’s for another discussion). Surely there is some insight that some blacks have gained through our urban experience that would get us considered for this list. Why has that not happened? Is there a black Jane Jacobs? Is there a black Andres Duany? Lewis Mumford? Edmund Bacon? William Whyte? Richard Florida? James Howard Kunstler? If not, why not?

Admittedly, most of the top urban thinkers come from the fields that, you know, deal with the urban form, and there has long been a lack of black participation among those disciplines. Urbanists tend to be academics, writers and journalists, architects and designers, and of course planners (although it’s been my experience that there are fewer planners who are passionate about cities than one might think). Particularly in the case of academics, architects and planners, urbanists tend to come from highly educated professions, and there simply aren’t high numbers of blacks in those fields.

While they might not be considered urbanists in the thinker/intellectual sense, there are high-profile blacks who work to improve the urban form. Mitchell Silver, chief planning officer for the City of Raleigh, North Carolina, is President of the American Planning Association. He’s been in a position to utilize his several years of experience working in New York City to make some positive changes in Raleigh. And there’s Toni Griffin, professor of architecture at the City College of New York, former director of community development for the City of Newark, New Jersey, and private practitioner who has conducted high-profile planning work in Newark and Detroit. Admittedly, the reason that I know of them is because I’ve had the opportunity to (briefly) work directly with them through the course of my career; there could be many others who are just as accomplished that I’ve never heard of.

Simply by Googling “black urbanist”, I came across Kristin Jeffers, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro with an MPA in Community and Economic Development who blogs at theblackurbanist.com. She’s been doing the blogging for more than a year and I applaud her for her passion and her efforts. However, it’s a bit much to expect her to have much prominence so early in her career.

I think there are reasons why few if any blacks have emerged as spokespersons for cities on a large scale in America:

The almost pervasive opinion for decades that “urban = bad”. This opinion is one that has plagued American cities forever, but gained steam after World War II. Our cities were seen to be filled with “slums” and “ghettos”, and while there were many places that were in poor condition, there were places that were vibrant, dynamic and very livable.

The devastation of African American neighborhoods through urban renewal began only shortly after they were able to gain a foothold. Witness a couple examples below:

These markers are for Paradise Valley in Detroit, and Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. Both were vibrant neighborhoods that were devastated by freeway construction and urban renewal in the 1950s and ‘60s. Now all that remains are signs of their earlier vitality. This same tragedy occurred throughout the country.

The impact of white flight. It seems there is general acknowledgement about the economic impact of white flight but little recognition of the social impact. One often overlooked impact is that many intact city neighborhoods, with longstanding histories, transitioned so quickly and completely from white to black that there was no effective transfer of neighborhood knowledge that would provide a foundation for new black residents. When white residents left they not only relocated their homes and businesses, but their institutions and social networks. Struggling new black residents were often unable to bridge that gap.

Gentrification and the new notion that “new urban = white”. I mentioned earlier that one group of urbanist is the type that advocates and supports things like transit, biking, mixed-use development, open space and trail networks, and other amenities that can make urban life more vibrant. Unfortunately many of these amenities have developed a “white” identity in the minds of many blacks, often being identified as the “things white people like” in their cities. You’ll often hear of this from community activist types whose major thrust has been to focus on the crime and poverty issues that plague so many of our urban neighborhoods, and simply see bikes/transit/parks/mixed-use as the tools that will be used to displace them.

A FUBU (for us, by us) mentality put forth in urban neighborhoods, when collaboration is key to community revitalization. Related to the above point, there is huge desire by many community activist types to revitalize neighborhoods on strictly African American terms. Improve conditions, they say, and the black middle class will jump at the chance to move back to the community they grew up in. There is quite a bit of truth to that, but in most cities the black middle class is not large enough to support the revitalization of entire sections of cities. Activists will have to realize that revitalization will happen only when you include groups beyond your own.

If there’s going to be real and long-lasting revitalization in America’s heavily black urban neighborhoods, the elected officials and community activists who represent them are going to have to shift their priorities. They will have to let go of their visions of neighborhood past and start thinking of a new community paradigm – one that may not be exclusively African American. They must move away from the debilitating notion that they want enough of the new amenities to serve the needs of current residents, but no so much that they are eventually displaced. They must join hands with the numerous groups that are engaged in improving cities, recognize them as allies and stop thinking of them as the urban enemy.

If our communities are to be saved our leaders must embrace new thinking around cities.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 21, 2012.

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Sunday, June 24th, 2012

State of Chicago: The Decline and Rise

This article is part of the State of Chicago.

I’ve had it in my head for over a year now to do an in-depth exploration of Chicago, a project I’ve called “State of Chicago.” Today I want to kick that off as a series of posts that expand on the themes in my recent article “The Second-Rate City?

First, I’d like to list three reasons why I wrote that piece:

1. To bring to the attention of Chicago the very poor statistical performance of the city on basic demographic and economic measures.
2. To write a corrective to the many national puff pieces that have been written on the city that totally overlooked its real and serious problems.
3. To lay out some frames that I had on the underlying causes that are different from the typical explanations, in particular the excessive focus on “global city” and the “cost of clout.”

As it turns out, Rahm Emanuel’s own economic plan and the OECD report beat me to the punch on point #1. As a lot of what I wanted to accomplish with State of Chicago was data oriented, my project is now much less ambitious than I’d originally intended since Chicago’s leaders are now, fortunately, owning up to the problems.

The Fall of Chicago

Today I want to start out by giving the prequel to my article: Chicago’s Rust Belt decline and subsequent comeback, particularly in the 90s. I think everybody knows that cities had a rough 70s and early 80s. It was the “Rotten Apple” era in New York, for example, a time of needle parks, mugger money, graffiti trains, a brush with bankruptcy, and much more.

Chicago had a similar rough patch. When Richard Longworth (now of Caught in the Middle and Global Midwest fame) returned to Chicago in 1976 from many years overseas as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, it was to a grim, decaying city that, like so many big cities in America at the time, clearly was a city that did not work.

This was perhaps best symbolized by the city’s inept response to the Blizzard of ’79, which left the city paralyzed for days. Mayor Michael Bilandic’s blizzard response was widely credited for his subsequent re-election defeat. Old mayor Richard J. Daley’s City Hall alliance with business had preserved the Loop as a powerful, if somewhat drab, business district while so many other Midwest downtowns fell into ruin. But otherwise Chicago was a troubled, declining city covered by a veneer of boosterism.

In 1981 Longworth wrote a damning four part, front page series for the Chicago Tribune called “A City on the Brink” drawing a powerful portrait of a city in crisis. He noted that, “Chicago has become an economic invalid. The situation may be permanent.” The Economist, in a far cry from its praise in the 2000s, described the city as having little more than a “facade of downtown prosperity.”

The city was losing people, losing businesses, and losing jobs – even in the Loop. Manufacturing was collapsing and the middle class was fleeing, leading to neighborhood decline and eroding the city’s tax base, which in turn degraded the city services residents had come to expect and demand. The decline in services and neighborhoods drove more people way, which led to further declines, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Pierre de Vise predicted, “I see very little hope for locating economic activities here again.” And a local business executive added, “Is the city being annihilated? It’s probably inevitable.” While careful to note that Chicago was not at the point of New York City’s brush with bankruptcy nadir, Longworth noted it was headed that direction and glumly asked, “What happens when a major city becomes a backwater?”

The city was failing on nearly every measure. I was struck by how similar Longworth’s litany of statistics were to my own. There was a big different however: back then things were way worse. Today the problems of Chicago take place against a backdrop of many areas of strength in the urban core and a secular uptrend in the fortunes of cities. Given that Chicago has come back from far more dire circumstances than it faces today, there’s reason for optimism in the present.

Chicago Reborn

As I noted in City Journal, during the 90s (probably starting in the late 80s), Chicago had a massive comeback. It gained people, it gained jobs, and the core reasserted itself. I moved to Chicago in 1992 when only a few select lakefront precincts were really gentrified. Though I lived in Lincoln Park, I was told not to move west of Racine, not because it was dangerous, but because it was dead. The area where I used to live near Belmont/Ashland/Lincoln was completely boarded up except for the Army-Navy surplus store. Recruiters for my company tried to sell me on the city by telling me it was now a location of the uber-hip coffee chain Starbucks. I watched vast tracts of the city transformed before my eyes. The 90s boom was real. I saw it. I felt it.

It also showed up in the data. I don’t want to go too crazy, but I wanted to look at some economic statistics. First, I want to look at metro area job growth in the 1990s for selected cities. I’ll show the percentage gains in a moment, but here’s the raw job growth for the ten largest US metros during the 1990s. (Top ten selected based on today’s 2010 census population).


Note: Data in thousands

Chicago actually had the third highest total job growth. Not only did metro Chicago outgrow New York and crush LA (which got bruised by the “peace dividend”), it actually added more total jobs than Houston, everybody’s darling today. Wow. And more than currently booming Washington, DC. In short, Chicago beat out its mature tier one peers while holding its own with the emerging boomtowns. Very impressive.

Here’s the percentage view:

Not as impressive vs. the emerging cities, but Chicago held its own with Boston (a big beneficiary of the dotcom boom) and more than doubled up traditional peers New York and LA. I think it’s fair to label Chicago an outperformer here.

Let’s do a quick look at unemployment rates for the big three:

As you can see, Chicago metro had a much lower unemployment rate than NYC or LA during most of the 90s. Since unemployment rate is available at the municipal level, here’s a quick look at the big three core cities. We’ll see again that even at the municipality level, the city of Chicago had a lower unemployment rate:

So in terms of quantitative measures, Chicago was winning in the 90s. But it also seemed to do well qualitatively. I don’t have GDP data going back to the 90s, but I do have per capita personal income. Here’s how the top ten cities fared:

Boston topped out, perhaps to be expected from the dotcom boom. But Chicago beat NYC and LA again, and also Washington, DC. (Interestingly, the southern boomtowns that did well on this metric in the 90s mostly got killed on it in the 2000s, Houston excepted).

So I think it’s fair to say that compared to its large mature peers, Chicago economically was the winner (or at least near the top depending on who you put in there) during the 1990s, along with Boston. This is the type of performance Chicago is capable of delivering.

But beyond the statistical measures, there were many qualitative improvements as well. For example, Chicago was really the early leader in quality of space. After Mayor Daley’s famous trip to Paris, he came back and encased the city in wrought iron. He also put in miles of streetscapes, with median planters, new streetlights and the like. (I happen to think the aesthetic style of these was not appropriate to Chicago, but they clearly upgraded the city in a big way). The CTA saw a brand new L line open to Midway Airport. New cultural facilities blossomed. For example, both the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera undertook $100+ million building projects. And Daley even brought political stability back to the city after the turbulence Bilandic-Bryne years and the racially driven “Council Wars” of the 1980s.

In a post-Cold War global order, Chicago also emerged as a global city. No longer just a superpower of the American interior, Chicago came to play a critical role in the global economy, through its derivatives exchanges, its professional services complex, and its status as a transport and cultural hub. Globalization became the lens through which the city sees its role in the modern economy, and with some justification. By 2010, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Chicago as the sixth most important global city in the world, for example. Chicago began to regard itself no longer as merely the “Second City,” but as a global player in its own right.

So in the 1990s, Chicago was riding high. Little did the city know that with the dotcom collapse and the national economic trends of the 2000s, the city was about to enter a tailspin. But there was clearly a lot of real progress and change in the city and a lot for the city to feel good about and be proud of. Chicago was the big city champion of the 90s.

I don’t want that story to get lost and people to think I’m just picking on Chicago. I’m happy to shout out its accomplishments when merited. But when things aren’t going so well, the city likewise deserves people who are willing to tell the truth.

In the next installment, we’ll expand a bit on the troubles.

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

The Value of Transit: Rezoning Grand Central

I previously wrote about the value of transit in terms of direct benefits to motorists. This is marginal in most cities but in the biggest cities with extensive transit systems it is substantial. For example, just the financial benefits to commuters from congestion relief would be sufficient to fund Chicago’s entire regional transit system on an operating basis.

New York City is of course the paradigm of how improved transit drives enormous value. Naturally commuters benefit, but the real big dollars in New York are in real estate values (and potentially in the entire structure of the regional economy).

The connection between transit and real estate is something that New York leaders clearly get. The 7-train extension is being paid for from city funds. Though grossly overpriced, the city figured that it was more than worth borrowing money to build the extension in order to make big expanses of the west side of Manhattan more attractive to development. The payback on this would appear to be a no-brainer, barring some major economic reversal in the city.

We also see something similar at work in a plan to rezone the land around Grand Central Terminal to enable older 20-50 story office buildings (average age 68 years) to be demolished and replaced with modern towers as high as the Chrysler Building. This is a significant upzoning compared with the 1961 code.

This is not just being enabled by the existing transit infrastructure, but also new major investments coming online. Most notable is the East Side Access project, which will bring the LIRR into Grand Central. That project is projected to bring travel time savings of up to 45 minutes for a lot of commuters. It will also help to support the development of higher densities in the vicinity of the station. Likewise the Second Ave. Subway will benefit pretty much the entire East Side of Manhattan by bringing badly needed congestion relief and the ability to carry more passengers on that side of town. (The existing Lexington 4/5/6 trains carry more people than the entire Chicago CTA rail system).

Given Bloomerberg’s lame duck status and New York’s famously challenging politics, the rezoning may not happen. But it’s a perfect example of how a city can go about capturing the value transit can bring, in terms of economic activity if not actual money for transit.

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Infographic: CTA Revenues and Costs

Grid Chicago pointed me at a couple interesting graphics put out by the Center for Neighborhood Technology showing where Chicago transit revenues come from and fares go. These are fairly standard style charts, but fun and informative.

Financing the CTA:

Where fares go:

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Biking Through China’s Countryside

I came across this unique eight minute video of two people who bicycle through the countryside of China and show us what they find there. Perhaps it’s a bit off topic for the Urbanophile, but I found it fascinating and wanted to share. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

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Topics: Urban Culture

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The Tension Between Newcomers and Oldtimers in an Old City by Richey Piiparinen

On Cleveland–out of its vast variety of worlds (i)–sometimes I feel like I’m straddling two of them, with two different sets of assumptions.

I think they’ll be familiar to some folks across the Midwest:

World 1—Younger Clevelanders who grew up here, particularly on the west and south sides. Some description: late 20s to 30s. Many Catholic—be it through Polish, Irish, Slovakian, Italian, or whatever descent. Despite the rumors of a mass exodus most of them haven’t left. But those that grew up in the city have largely moved to the suburbs. Those that grew up in inner-ring suburbs have mostly moved farther out. A few buck the trend and move closer to the core—in Tremont, Downtown, but they’re anomalies. Some have stayed put. As for attitude, work—the indigenous are closer to the Baby Boomers than they are their actual age. They are in many ways an extension of a legacy city threaded forward into the present, complete with naysaying about how Cleveland has fallen (though they only knew it on its knees)—complete with manufacturing and union ties, cop and fireman ties. They haunt West Park bars and Lakewood bars and in general: old man bars, but not for irony, but a buzz. Many smoke still. Think the term “urban ag” is some derogatory remark. They talk about high school (which one? what year?) They have kids and drive tons and see bikes as things they have to put under the tree around the holidays. But they are solid, and are attached to Cleveland like a mole is attached to the body. They are loyal that way. Perhaps too loyal.

World 2—Clevelanders who grew up elsewhere, be it out of Ohio, in Ohio, but not considered from here (granted being considered “from here” is–by the indigenous–a pretty small radius). Some description: no coalescing ethnic or religious descent—a mix of everything, nothing. They live in the core, be it city neighborhoods, Downtown, or inner ring suburbs. Cleveland is more about today to them, with the legacy ties tethered mainly to their chagrin that there’s a legacy still weighing the city down. But they appreciate the city’s past, especially it’s built past. They form Facebook groups about a lot, like micro-lending and historical preservation and bike advocacy and outings. There’s a lot of biking overall—doing it, talking about it. And the newcomers have an entrepreneurial spirit, with start-ups and worker co-ops defining the day as opposed to structured times and static work stations. Urban planning to them doesn’t arouse shrugs—like with their indigenous counterparts—but is rather part of the day, like finding food. This is partly why they are attracted to Cleveland I am told, for it’s a real city with a real history, but with an opportunity to do real shit. But it’s more than that, less a cosmopolitan thing than a rust thing. For the Rust Belt means something: not just the consequence of aged metal, but an essence of tangibility and ruggedness in an age of sprawl, sanitization, and display.

Like I said, I’m sometimes in the context of both: Mid-30′s, am from here, am Catholic, go to old man bars, have a kid, went to St. Ed’s High School, but also: I live in the urban core, blog, studied urban planning, am a Rust Belt romantic, and know urban ag isn’t a put down. But these two worlds hardly meet, despite the age similarity. At least that is my experience.

And it’s not just a Cleveland thing apparently. From a blog Cincinnati Imports (click here to see their Facebook group):

ok, we have skirted around this issue long enough so let’s just put it out there. we, and by “we” i mean “i,” think it is weird that people from cincinnati always want to know where you went to high school…i moved here from new york where nobody went to high school there and even if they did, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

i don’t blame cincinnatians, this is what they are used to. but on a general level, i really think it reflects the insular nature of the city. no wonder so many people aren’t that welcoming to newcomers to the city… they don’t even realize there are any!

And then over in Pittsburgh, blogger Mike Madison, a newcomer to the city back in 1998, recently had this to say about that fine line between attachment to place and the city’s social capital stuck in motion:

This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition…come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh…

[Yet] All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place…

What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA…Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion…

Madison could have been talking about Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., and as indigenous to Cleveland, his post gave me pause. Because though I am indigenous, my interests give me the benefit of experiencing the world of the newcomer that is frankly not understood–and sometimes derided–by many I know. Yet we are called legacy cities for a reason. And for long we have been molded in a way of doing and being that eventually tilted our attachment to Rust Belt tradition into the stasis that enabled our oxidation in the first place.

And while I began this piece simply describing the gaps between two sets of groups, I finish it a bit more declarative than I intended: by saying that the world of the indigenous Clevelander has been less a world than it has been a fish tank—and we have been suffocating in our exclusion of fresh air and ideas for too long.

(i) Yes, this is a small representative of the world, and all the worlds of Cleveland, but it is used as a fine-grain example of a macro-level issue in a lot of Midwest cities dealing with the inability to take in new ideas. Be it the aversion to risk-taking, or the reluctance to accept others unlike what you came from, sometimes section of Cleveland retain an insularity that are not good for the city, and that serve to push newcomers and/or outsiders out. Not good for a place needing an influx of youth, diversity, and new ideas.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on March 8, 2012.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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