Thursday, September 20th, 2012
Many of you know that I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where I live in the town of West Warwick. I’ve been learning the place more and soaking in New England culture (and seafood). This area has a Rust Belt type profile: declining population, post-industrial economic landscape, high unemployment, etc. So I’ve been trying to get a handle on conditions and think a bit about what the opportunities are.
I have been really struck by the way people here seem to think about their geographic identity. All of us have various layers of identity. Some of these are more primary than others. But let’s consider three possibilities in trying to answer the basic question “Where do you live?” Those are your state, your metro, or your town. Which of these forms the most important basis of identity?
My observation so far is that most people here think of themselves first as Rhode Islanders, and secondly as residents of their town. Providence, possibly because at 178,000 people it’s fairly small, is sort of seen as just another town. (Southern Massachusetts is maybe seen as a type of Canadian province with its own collection of towns).
So what? you might ask. Unit recently I probably would have said that it doesn’t matter that much. But now I see that it has a profound effect on creating the lens through which people process the world. Here are some local implications.
First, it leads people to exaggerate the uniqueness here. Rhode Island is geographically the smallest state, and also quite small in population. I heard people say that only in Rhode Island can you get pretty much every leader in the place to show up for a conference on the state’s economic future. If your worldview is the state, that may be true. But if your worldview is metro area, I think there are many similar sized regions that could pull this off. There are many things that appear unique if your lens is Rhode Island that are not if your lens is Metro Providence. It may be that there’s uniqueness in the small geography of Rhode Island from the standpoint of state policy, but if I may be so bold, this is hardly its strong suit. (But for a positive example of how this can work in a place like Rhode Island where it’s more difficult elsewhere, see the example of pension reform).
Second, the economic geography of the new economy is metro regions. When you look state first, you are missing the bigger picture. If you doubt that the metro area is the primary economic unit, I suggest spending some time perusing material over at the Brookings Institution. States are more or less irrelevant economically, except that they can screw things up for the metro and non-metro regions they contain.
Third, Providence is a bi-state metro area that includes Southern Massachusetts. You can also see Providence as an extended node in the Greater Boston economy. If you look primarily at the state, you miss this, or even see Massachusetts as the competition. You also lose about 60% of the population scale you have to work with.
Fourth, when you look state first, your natural inclination is to compare yourself against other states. In Rhode Island’s case, there really aren’t many similar places, so the default is other New England states. On the other hand, one can imagine many similar Rust Belt type metros to compare Providence too. Places like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland come to mind. Of course these aren’t exactly the same, but they’ve been grappling with the legacy of de-industrialization seriously for a really long time. There have got to be many things that could be learned by studying and networking with these areas. There’s a lot of pan-Rust Belt discussion going on these days, but Providence isn’t part of it. This is part of that new economic geography of cities I was talking about.
In short, I think treating state identity as primary has problems. Rhode Island is most certainly not the only place where this crops up, but it is noticeable here and perhaps more important here since the state is a subset of a metro geography instead of a superset.