Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Where Do You Live?

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.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

15 Responses to “Where Do You Live?”

  1. Quimbob says:

    Had a politically active relative live in Coventry for about 5 years – worked at Brown. She hated living there – claimed a lot of political ineptness/corruption. RI’s state government’s hierarchy is not like the midwest’s Northwest Territory, either. How that shapes residents perceptions, I don’t know but I assume it would. They seem to do a better job of grave stewardship than midwestern states & that probably helps insofar as a sense of historical identity.

  2. George M says:

    Aaron, I started jotting a few comments down, and it ended up growning into a full-blown analysis of the differences between the mindset in New England and the rest of America. Get ready for a long post. :-)

  3. John Morris says:

    Seems like the other big thing that links RI and old rust belt cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland is the very large influence of old money.

    I’m not entirely sure of that in Rhode Island but in my small experience touring around places like Pawtucket and Woonsocket- the name Rockefeller came up a lot.

    This dead hand type money and insular blue blood establishment influence has a pretty big downside.

  4. George M says:


    I have commented before on this site about the cultural differences from New England where I grew up (New Haven area) to Columbus, OH, where I moved. I think you will find that they are substantial, and significantly impact the New England area. The area operates under a schema that was long-ago fixed in the legal, political and cultural institutions of the area.

    New England’s a very territorial, parochial region. Municipal borders were fixed long ago, well before metro areas became the main economic unit. Additionally, there are numerous small (except Boston) metros that bump up against one another. As a result, you get an agglomeration of communities that sit between metro areas.

    Take a place like Attleboro. It’s a bit closer to Providence than Boston, but sits smack on I-95 between the two, and since Boston is a much bigger city, its sphere of cultural and economic influence spreads much farther. Plus, Attleboro was a small city in its own right, with a population close to 25,000 in 1950, prior to the time when it would have been absorbed into the larger metroplex. It even had its own industry and motto as “the Jewelry Capital of the World”.

    So when folks from Attleboro travel to other parts of the country and tell folks where they are from, what do they say? The density and positioning of the community, plus its history, makes that a hard question to answer. My experience was that virtually everyone from New England would say what specific town they were from. Even if they live 5 feet from Providence, they will still say they’re from Cranston, if the city line puts them there. This is true no matter if they’re taking to a local or if they’re talking to a cabbie in Vegas who has never heard of Cranston.

    Then there’s the history. Here in Columbus, people’s self-worth is in the future. We’re a young, relatively anonymous, but up-and-coming city. We have a history, but most people don’t hang their self-identity hat on it (in fact, I would argue that there is an unhealthy self-angst about Columbus’ past by its residents). New England cities and towns, however, have a much richer history. Pilgrims, founding fathers, settlement in the 1600’s, historic town centers, fishing villages, former industrial powerhouses, Ivy League universities – all of these things contribute to a culture where the past is revered (no pun intended).

    This creates a strong resistance to change in these communities. Why would a community that prides itself on its historic past want to demolish some of it to build new, modern facilities? They don’t. Even in Boston, the economic powerhouse of the region, many people still deride the skyline as “wanting Boston to look like New York”. Their true pride is placed in the Back Bay, North End, the Commons, etc.

    This also extends to greenfield development. While many areas have residents that resist change, New Englanders have a particularly powerful argument-the history of the place. After all, the heritage of the area is small, dense nodes with pastoral, rolling hills in between. A colonial-style home on a 5-acre exurban lot preserves much of that look. A relatively dense subdivision of 4 units an acre does not. Local officials tend to listen to this argument more in New England than in other parts of the country, because, again, their self-worth is strongly tied to their history.

    Additionally, New England is more crowded already than many other parts of the country. This furthers resistance to new developments. The results in higher real estate prices, and this, along with the lack of economic activity that would draw many new residents to the area, means that many New Englanders were born and raised there. Not much fresh blood to re-think the way things are done.

    Finally, this small-box home-rule mindset extends even to governments. First, New England “towns” are essentially the equivalent of “townships” in other parts of the country. However, there are significant differences. In Ohio, townships are considered semi-autonomous extensions of the County government. They are not incorporated as their own municipalities. They are run by their own elected officials, but have only limited powers as delegated to them by the Ohio Constitution. In legal-speak, they are not “home rule” governmental entities. For example, townships can have zoning (if they jump through certain hoops), but they cannot approve subdivisions-that’s a County function.

    They can also lose land to municipalities that swallow up land through annexation. The City of Columbus essentially controlled development in Central Ohio for 50 years through buying up the water system and only agreeing to provide service to developers if they annexed to the City or a suburb with which the City had an agreement in place. This was a “big box” approach that was put in place in the 1950’s, and it worked well for Columbus over the years. In New England, the borders were fixed a few hundred years ago, and they don’t change.

    New England towns are also not incorporated. However, this is a virtually meaningless designation. They do have home rule, and function in virtually every way just like an incorporated city. They cannot be annexed by a city. A friend of mine that’s heavily involved in my home town’s local government once said to me, “we looked into incorporating ourselves as a city, but all it meant was that we would have to pay some higher fees to the State.”

    To even further the small box mindset, most New England states (and perhaps all) don’t have county governments. Sure, they have lines on a map, but they are virtually meaningless. Each town or city provides all of its own services. For example, in the Columbus area, the Franklin County recorder handles the documentation regarding all of the real estate transaction for Columbus and the other suburbs in the Franklin County, which contains most of the metro area population. In Connecticut, each town has its own clerk that just handles that town. In the town in which I grew up, the Town Clerk was an elected position essentially like a vice-mayor position.

    There are a few services that each town just cannot provide by themselves. In this case, the State provides them on a regional basis. An example is the Court system. In Ohio, each County has its own local court system. In Connecticut, the State operates the courts in a number of districts, often roughly mirroring county lines or metro areas.

    The cumulative result of this is a regional mindset that is from my experiences fairly unique. In some ways the Northeast, with New England as a part of that area, is wordly-a gateway to America, home to several large world-class cities, a history of immigration and a density that make this region feel busy, prosperous and cosmopolitan. It often sets trends that the rest of the world follows.

    On the other hand, it is also a region of small boxes, one that lives in the past as much as the future, and one that resists change fairly aggressively. The view is not forward-looking in many cases. It’s somewhat inward-looking. The identities are fragmented and parochial. The bottom line is-outside of a few business cluster locations like Cambridge or Wall Street, or a few high-society locations like the Hamptons or Newport R.I., the Northeast doesn’t want to necessarily be a trend-setter, even though it often is. It’s not that interested in climbing the ladder to “world class” or the “big time”-partly because it would have to sacrifice part of its identity, and partly because it thinks it’s already there. It’s just fine with its leaf-strewn rolling hills, historic downtowns, fairly moribund economic performance and proximity to world-class New York and Boston.

    As a final note-it may sound that I am bashing this mindset. I don’t necessarily think it’s all bad. I do believe that New England could do more to promote more job growth. Some forward, big box thinking here would be welcome. On the other hand, not many places in America have the rich history and scenic beauty that New England has, and this is exactly the kind of “authentic brand” of which you have spoken so often of late. Indeed, tourism has become a big part of the New England economy over time as many people recognize this brand and want to experience it for themselves. Artists, authors and creative types, at least the highly successful ones that can afford it, tend to flock to the area to live and work in relative seclusion and anonymity. This lifestyle, in my opinion, should be preserved and nurtured in a nation where so many places do seem like every other place.

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    Mass European settlement began in Rhode Island in the 1600’s, almost 200 years before it did in the Northwest Territory. Hence, old everything by North American standards.

  6. Laura Z. says:


    I’m a native Rhode Islander (yes, I can whip out that accent with the best of them and give you directions based on landmarks that haven’t existed in decades…). Born, grew up, and lived in Providence until I was 36 when I left for better employment out of state. It’s interesting that Pittsburgh is mentioned in this article as that’s where I bought a house last year. I picked Pittsburgh mainly because it reminded me of how interesting and creative a place Providence was is the 80s and early 90s. I would say the one difference between the P cities is that the ‘burgh has a bit more HOPE. Ironic, as that’s the RI motto… Maybe I’m just a cynical New Englander at heart, or maybe it’s how history and time have changed my view, but it seems like RI is a difficult place to change. Citizens can have good ideas, neighborhoods can work toward improvements, but it’s always an uphill and long battle. So much infighting. Too many political interests.

    There are times when I miss RI, but I get my ocean fix once a year when I rent a little beach house in Charlestown (speaking of which, as a new resident to the state, look up the great Charlestown cigarette raid of the early 2000s). Like my grandparents, sometimes you just have to pull up the stakes and head away from the ‘old country” if you want to have a better life for yourself. It feels good to have that now. :-)

    Enjoy West Warwick!

  7. Kaleb says:

    I hail from Oregon, which I think is another good case study for state identity. We have a ubquitious “heart in Oregon” sticker on just about every Portland (Subaru) bumper…but hardly any of our rural bumpers. Symbolic of some larger things going on…but such an analysis is hardly suited for a cell phone keyboard…

  8. John Morris says:

    I’m from, NYC and heard about Providence being pretty creative in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Checked it out and later decided also that Pittsburgh was a better choice. There is some flow and connection between the two cities since both cities have respected art/design schools and both were once seen as affordable creative cities.

    They both also have a hill thing going on.

  9. John Morris says:

    This relates to the Houston thread.

    Both, Pittsburgh a few years back and Providence in the 1990’s shared a certain energy-partly because they were depressed enough to have surplus space. Unless, Pittsburgh becomes much more serious about freeing up the barriers to urban growth–the city will likely lose that affordable advantage.

  10. John Morris says:

    One thing about the Pittsburgh region, that’s different from Providence is that there is a pretty pro growth mentality outside the city.

    I mean–most people still seriously doubt if the region can grow and attract people, but they are mostly all for it, if it can. A good example is the eagerness for fracking outside the city. There is still a real Appalachian hunger here and a lot of burried, wounded pride. Nothing feels better to a Yinzer than to see how much you like their city.

  11. Rod Stevens says:

    It is common sense to think in terms of metros, but this does not make political sense. The money to act does not cross political lines.

    When people in Rhode Island fund economic development, they have to pretend that the benefits will flow from Providence all the way out to the rural south counties. That’s the myth that gets the appropriation. It would be far more sensible to align money with cluster development radiating out from the “Hub” or concentrating at the nodes. Those regions benefit, but not the rural areas in either state, which will put a stop to the deal.

  12. Dick Nowakowski says:

    Not sure what you mean by “Southern Massachussetts may be seen as a type of Canadian province with its own collection of towns”. Could you explain?

  13. Thanks for the comments.

    @Dick Noawkowski, the idea is that Massachusetts is separate from Rhode Island (and so in some ways a competitor and a place that you don’t work with), yet nevertheless has a lot of similarities and a lot of cross-border affinity and flows. In other words, it’s a soft border.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Random trivia: the RI/MA border was adjusted in the 19th century to place the Providence suburbs of the era in the correct state.

    Anyway, I live in Vancouver. Before Vancouver, I lived in Providence. Before Providence, I lived in New York.

    Generally I don’t notice the same business culture attitudes you describe (not my industry), but yes, the self-definition based on the state is widespread. That said, I think there is a sense, on both sides of the border, that Falls River and Seekonk and Rehoboth are part of the Providence orbit. The transit geeks talk about serving Falls River by rail and about how Iway benefits Rehoboth rather than Providence; a student who’s from southern Massachusetts went to Providence College before going to Brown for grad school; local gatherings include people from all over Rhode Island but also the nearby parts of Massachusetts, with the odd Boston-area person.

    More data point about how people view themselves:

    – The big gaming convention is in Warwick, but the gaming store it’s attached to is in Pawtucket. In New York and even Boston you wouldn’t see this – if the convention is on one side of the central city, the associated activities will be on the same side.
    – The landlord I had lives in Coventry. In New York, if the landlord lives that far, it’s not an individual landlord, but a company.
    – Stores move between towns – the one I needed moved from Providence to, I believe, Cranston – more than they do in New York.

  15. Alex Pearlstein says:

    I’d add another geographic identifier: the neighborhood. In cities like Cincinnati or St. Louis that are so neighborhood-centric, people’s affiliations are even finer-grained. Makes it that much harder to get anything done because there’s no perspective outside of your immediate surroundings. They also get the reputation for being closed-off to newcomers. The first question St. Louisans ask you is “where did you go to high school?” The Cincinnati equivalent is “what neighborhood are you from?” Hard to foster change when localism in in the DNA.

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