Sunday, March 9th, 2014
Sunday night dinner in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. This is one of three dinner groups in that neighborhood. Photo by Amanda Reynolds (check out the mirror!)
Urban culture varies radically from city to city. Yet to a great extent the culture of the usual suspects type of places tends to get portrayed as normative. In New York, for example, with its tiny apartments, the social life is often in public, in many cases literally on the streets of the city, which pulse with energy. As the ne plus ultra of cities, the street life of New York is often seen as what every place should aspire to. There’s a body of literature which attributes all sorts of positive effects to this New York style urbanism, such as the notion of “collisions” and “serendipitous encounters”. But while New York’s street life and social scene may indeed be engaging, how often does one actually strike up a conversation with someone random on the street or in a coffee shop there that turns into something meaningful? The only collisions I’ve ever had there were literal.
New York is the most well known and championed style of interaction, though hardly the only one. Think of San Francisco and something clearly distinct will come to mind, albeit with some similarities. LA has its own mythos. The TV show Portlandia does a great job of capturing our idea of the quirky urban life of that city.
Cities that lack the cachet of an NYC, SF, or Portland can often find their own urban culture lacking in comparison. To be taken seriously, the logic goes, they must measure up to the yardstick defined by others. But while I do not subscribe to the idea of value free cultural comparisons, I do believe cities need not judge themselves as wanting just because they don’t function like New York City. Rather, they should seek to be the best they can be on their own terms. Since few cities are anything like New York, aspiring to that kind of urbanism would only be a case study in frustration anyway.
Indianapolis cultural commentator David Hoppe once said something to the effect that “the social life of Indianapolis happens in back yards.” And this is true. Unlike a New York City, Indianapolis does not wow you just by walking down the street. While I believe in trying to contextualize the facts on the ground in the most positive way possible for moving forward, that doesn’t mean reclassifying genuine defects as virtues. In the case of Indianapolis, the generally poor impression left by its built environment and lack of street life can’t be denied. There are plenty of great places to go, but you generally need someone to point you in the right direction.
But there are countervailing virtues as well, ones generally under appreciated. Unlike New York, Indy has a far more robust social life in private spaces like houses and back yards. This produces a qualitatively different type of social capital, one with its own unique set of strengths.
One example of this is the emergence of community based Sunday dinners. This was an organic movement and as a result lacks a fancy name, but in keeping with the generally low key and unpretentious character of the city, let’s just call it Sunday Night Dinner.
Sunday night dinners are a type of intentional community in which 6-8 families in a neighborhood decide to get together for dinner every Sunday night on a rotating basis. This originated in 2006 on Pleasant St. in the Fountain Square neighborhood when a group of neighbors decided to start getting together regularly for dinner. Here’s how Tonya Beeler, one of the founding members, describes it:
When most of us talk about it, we just call it Sunday Night Dinner. It’s unassuming, I know – but that’s what Sunday Dinner is to us. We’ve had it consistently for almost 8 years – having only cancelled dinner a handful of times. The majority of the families on the original list are still regular participants and we’ve added and lost a few through the years.
What is Sunday Night Dinner to us? In this stage in our lives, its sometimes difficult to physically connect to your neighbors, but we know that each Sunday we’re going to see our friends. It’s also a good time to have newcomers to the neighborhood connect with some of us old timers. We’ve also had visits from Mayor Ballard (before he was elected) and Melina Kennedy (when she was running) and I still have a fond memory of John Day sitting down to sup with us. But what is it mostly? Just a day in the week where we meet to take a breath, sit down, and eat together. It’s my favorite day of the week.
I used to be part of a quarterly dinner club in Chicago. Given the frequency, our idea was to make each dinner “special” in the sense that we went all out with super high-quality food, etc. In Indy, while good food is certainly part of the equation, the regular weekly cadence means it’s as much about friends and neighbors as it is special ambiance. It’s about regular life lived in the city. In the picture at the top it’s paper plates and plastic cups all the way – and that’s just fine. Can’t stay for some reason? No worries, bring some tupperware, grab some food, and run. In a sense, it’s the Kinfolk Magazine ethic (motto: doing things simple sure is complicated – and expensive) in genuine form, shorn of Portland pretense.
Sunday night dinner in the Beeler’s backyard in Fountain Square, Indianapolis, Easter 2012. Photo: Cindy Ragsdale
Oh, and typically with children, which actually exist in abundance in Indianapolis.
The idea spread and now there are Sunday night dinner groups all over the city. I’m told there are three in Herron-Morton Place alone, which I can’t quite wrap my head around given how small the area is.
I can’t help but notice the similarity of these dinner groups to religious small group gathering. In the last couple decades, Evangelical churches have moved away from mid-week services in favor of small group gathering during the week (sometimes called home groups or other names). The idea is to promote more actual community than is possible in a larger assembly format. These dinner groups are in effect secular small groups, ones that help provide the sense of connectedness, regularity, and rootedness that’s so often missing from our contemporary world.
Outdoor fun on Sunday night isn’t just for summer in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.
These groups aren’t just walled garden cliques, however. The host generally invites guests to attend. So there’s a type of brokered introduction which in my experience is the real source of “serendipitous” encounters of genuine value. An arranged guest invite is one way to get people connected in their neighborhood, or even to help people who are deciding whether or not to take the plunge into city living to get a feel for what life lived in a particular neighborhood is actually like.
In fact, if you are visiting Indianapolis on a Sunday night, or live there and want to check it out, email the City Gallery at the Harrison Center For the Arts and they will set you up. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t want to suggest that Indianapolis invented the concept of the dinner club or is the only place such events occur. For all I know, lots of places do this. (Heck, as big as it is, odds are that includes New York City). And as with all traditions, this particular instantiation will likely die off at some point (though it’s still growing eight years after starting on Pleasant St). Yet the prevalence of this type of cultural phenomenon is part of the explanation for why Indianapolis has consistently managed to punch above its weight class in so many areas. Although the type of obvious assets and strength evidenced by super-cool buildings or crowds on the street may be lacking in Indianapolis vis-a-vis some other places, the city contains deep reservoirs of cultural capital that aren’t as visible and may never be fully understood or mapped, but nevertheless are of profound importance. This is the real secret sauce of the city.
Copying this idea, locally or anywhere, is definitely welcomed. Should you be interested, here are the “Indianapolis Rules” for Sunday night dinners, courtesy of Tonya Beeler:
1. Dinner is every Sunday night, with six to eight families, each hosting on a rotating basis.
2. The host is responsible for preparing all of the food for everyone. (Work? Yes, but it also means seven weeks of not having to do anything but show up).
3. The host is responsible for inviting all guests. Do not invite guests without checking with the host first.
4. If you’re not coming, tell the host as far in advance as possible.
5. At the very beginning of the dinner, the host makes sure all the guests know of any rules for the house (no one allowed upstairs, kids can’t eat in the living room, toilet handle needs to be held down for 3 seconds, whatever).
6. If your family will not be coming for dinner, but you still want food, there’s no need to let the host know, just stop by early in the meal (so you don’t miss anything, food goes fast!!!) with some tupperware and fill it to go.
Sunday night dinner in Fountain Square, Indianapolis. Painting by Kyle Ragsdale.
Thursday, March 6th, 2014
Trailer for CNN series “Chicagoland” – click here if the video does not display.
As part of his plan to boost sagging ratings at the network, CNN chief Jeff Zucker commissioned an eight part reality series about Chicago and its mayor called Chicagoland that premiers tonight at 10pm ET. The show is produced by the same people who did the Brick City series about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support from mega-star executive producer Robert Redford.
Rahm and the Media
Given that Brick City seems to have only helped Booker’s reputation, cynics in Chicago have already noted the fact that show’s producers are represented by the William Morris Endeavor Agency, which just so happens to be the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari. This is as much because of as in spite of a well-publicized move by directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin to ask the agency to recuse themselves from representing them when it comes to the show.
One need not believe in such a conspiracy to see this show as yet another example of Rahm’s media power – and his fearlessness in pursuing high profile opportunities to get his message out even in venues where he’s not in complete control. Rahm has had significant success in getting high profile national and global attention – for example, a glowing profile from NYT columnist Thomas Friedman – since taking office. He didn’t shy away from getting out there even when a spike in murders made global headlines Chicago of the type Chicago didn’t want – a time when many mayors would have crawled into their bunkers. And although he’s been in office a while now, Rahm fatigue seems not to have set in. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has a lengthy piece on him in the March issue of Esquire with the colorful title of “And Now For the Further Adventures of Rahm the Imapler.” The Financial Times recently ran a mostly positive piece called “Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America.” It even includes a high production quality six and a half minute video that will give you a flavor of it (if the video doesn’t display, click here):
With his ambition for Chicago as a global city, Rahm clearly sees global media as the ones that really count. Chicago’s status as a media center afterthought means few out of town reporters actually know that much about the city, hence Rahm has a huge opportunity to shape the message. This must infuriate the local media, which to a great extent Rahm is free to ignore because of his ability to go direct at the national and global level. Chicagoland should thus be seen as part of Rahm’s global media push, both for Chicago and for himself.
Reality TV vs. Journalism
The series is probably as good for Rahm and the city as it could possible get. Certainly the problems – high crime, poor schools, and labor troubles – are not glossed over. But given that they’ve been well publicized globally, it’s hard to imagine how they could be without sacrificing all credibility. Within the context of realism, this is a big win for the city.
Whether it’s a big win for journalism is another story. Like most modern documentaries or reality TV shows, Chicagoland is non-fiction in a sense, but also heavily scripted and edited to provide a compelling narrative. This makes for great TV drama and characterizations, but whether it represents truth as a reporter would tell it is much more doubtful.
Just as one example, the producers clearly had extensive access to Rahm and he’s frequently shown as concerned about crime, battling with unions, boosting the local economy, talking to school kids and even mentoring an inner city kid he brought on as an intern. But is that a fair representation of how Rahm Emanuel spends his time? The Chicago Reader did a two part series analyzing Rahm Emanuel’s schedule and published a two part series about it called “The Mayor’s Millionaire Club” (see part one and part two). They show that access to Rahm is heavily dependent on your wealth, influence, and donations. Yet that doesn’t come through in Chicagoland at all. Instead when the occasional powerful people are shown, they are always doing a good turn for the city, such as a group of tech executives donating products to schools.
I’m not suggesting this series should have been a bulldog investigative piece. However, I strongly suspect that CNN’s actual journalists will be seething at seeing their network and its relatively strong reputation being used for what is clearly not the type of work they themselves would undertake. Right or wrong, the CNN brand carries an expectation of a certain type of journalistic standard that the Sundance Channel (where Brick City originally ran) doesn’t. Right now on CNN’s Chicagoland page there’s an ad for Anderson Cooper 360. Something tells me that were Anderson Cooper in charge of Chicagoland, it would look quite different.
Compelling Drama and Characters
However, taken on the terms of a Sundance series, Chicagoland succeeds, and my guess is that Rahm will be overall pleased. The show sets up the drama by structuring the series as battles between opposing forces. In the first couple episodes, this is the battle between Rahm and Chicago Public Schools leadership on the one hand, and the teachers union and some affected parent groups on the other over plans by CPS to shutter 50 schools. Frankly, I thought it overly portrayed Chicago as if it were Newark. The segments were introduced by short positive vignettes of some aspect of Chicago (like the Stanley Cup playoffs), followed by more extensive coverage of the school closing dispute, and educational and crime problems in Chicago’s impoverished South Side. It would be like doing a flyby of Times Square before doing a deep dive on some of the worst blocks in Newark. While I myself have written on the two Chicagos theme, I was feeling that Chicago was being unfairly stigmatized.
I need not have worried. After the initial focus on the school closing dispute, the focus shifts. The drama is now between the good guys (basically every single person featured in the show) and the bad guys (gangsters and such who exist almost entirely offscreen, or so we’re led to believe). Almost without exception, the good guy characters are shown as 100% white knight types. Instead of positive vignettes followed by something Newarkesque, there’s a more balanced take in time allocation and the threads start merging across the two Chicagos. The show also starts laying the Chicago sales job on with a trowel. In Chicagoland’s coverage of things like the food scene, the music scene, the comedy clubs, or even footage of Rahm protesting a neo-Nazi march back in the 70s as a teenager, it’s hard to see how this could have been any more positive in its portrayal of the city if it had been produced directly by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. This is a huge win for the city.
The show also manages to create several compelling characters. One of them is the surgeon who leads the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital, a job I certainly would not want. How that guy manages to balance family life in Roscoe Village (my old neighborhood) with the reality of what he deals with every night at his job is beyond me.
But the star of the show is clearly Elizabeth Dozier, principal at Fenger High School in the South Side neighborhood at Roseland. She’s shown fighting not only to only educate her students, but keep them safe over the summer, and even invest in their lives after graduation when they get in trouble. (Dozier trying to help a former student who’s in jail for robbery realistically shows the need for “retail” 1:1 or N:1 investment in the lives of specific troubled people, not just programs, to make a real difference in a troubled person’s life – and even so the difficulty in seeing life change happen). Her obvious passion and dedication in the face of tough odds clearly come through. Yet even here there’s a sense of manufacture. Dozier is a young, attractive, stylish black professional who not only runs a South Side High School, but also gets personal face time with Rahm, knows Grant Achutz of Alinea, and hangs out with Billy Dec on his boat. How much of this A-list hob-nobbing was happening prior to Chicagoland coming to town I wonder? Regardless, it makes for compelling TV.
While I have my quibbles, I think on the whole Chicagoland is an enjoyable watch that will end up being good for the city and the mayor. Just don’t go in expecting journalism. This is first and foremost reality TV style drama. With that caveat in mind, I recommend watching it.
Takeaways From the Chicagoland
Watching Chicagoland made me think again two bigger picture issues.
First, in watching gangs take revenge on each other in an endless cycle of retaliation that literally stretches on for years and in which no one can actually recall the original offense, I was reminded of Hannah Arendt writing on the role of forgiveness:
Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is a natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.
Forgiveness is not the only way to put a stop to a cycle of revenge. Arendt posits official punishment as another. But forgiveness is clearly the fastest and surest route. Until either the police are able to impose order and mete out genuine justice, or the grieving family and aggrieved gang compatriots of these murder victims are able to forgive and forswear vengeance, the cycle is unlikely to ever end.
I don’t want to judge too harshly teenagers in a ghetto living out the only life script they’ve ever known. But what’s our excuse? We too often live out in miniature the same process ourselves. How often do most of us forgive genuine wrong done against us, even of a much less consequential nature? Tune into the internet any day of the week and see untold amounts of shrieking over some offense or another, real or imagined. I suspect the vast majority of us would be behave no differently from those gangbangers in similar circumstances. We are blessed not to be there, however. But will we use that privileged position to end or perpetuate cycles of wrong in our own lives?
Secondly, Chicagoland made me think about the bigger picture of leadership in our cities and the major problems they face. I voted for Rahm as mayor, for three reasons. 1) I saw him as like his mentor Bill Clinton, namely someone to whom getting elected and staying in power is more important than pushing any ideological agenda. In short, I saw him as a pragmatist, not an ideologue with a policy ax to grind like Bill de Blasio. 2) Rahm spent a lot of time outside of Chicago. He’s got a global perspective and a global network that’s critical in this era. He’s also got the gravitas to interact at the highest levels of power in America, which is something few mayors can say. 3) Rahm has no natural constituency in Chicago. So if he wants to be re-elected, he needs to perform. He clearly has future political ambitions, and flaming out as mayor wouldn’t be helpful in pursuing them.
Looking back, while I’ve criticized Rahm for an excessive focus on the elite, I believe my judgment then was correct and on the whole I think he’s done a decent job in a very difficult situation. Apropos of point #3, if Chicago thinks differently, the popular and competent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is waiting in the wings. Whatever you think of his neoliberal policies, it’s clear Rahm is an actual leader, one with a ton of intelligence, drive, power, and the will to get things done.
Yet watching Chicagoland, it’s evident that even leadership ability of Rahm’s caliber struggles mightily with the city’s huge challenges. Chicago has a massive fiscal hole, and a very serious problem with a two tier society that has left vast tracts of the city behind. It’s by no means certain that Rahm will be able to make Chicago soar in the way that Daley did in the 90s, or even get re-elected if a there’s any stumble and a credible candidate like Preckwinkle gets into the race.
When I think about the difficulties in solving the problems in Chicago, which has not only Rahm’s leadership but a massively successful global city economy in the Loop and hundreds of thousands of well-heeled residents, it makes me pause. If Chicago struggles with its problems, how much more so other cities facing similar or worse problems but with much weaker leadership and no global city money and firepower? It really makes me wonder if a lot of places are simply going to die a slow death barring some lucky break from a change in the marketplace.
This ultimately is what I’d challenge the residents of other cities to think about when watching this show. Look at Chicago and what it is dealing with. Think about your own problems and your resources for combating them vis-a-vis Chicago. If that doesn’t make you sober up, I’m not sure what will.
Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
I usually run some type of audio/visual piece on Wednesdays. This week I just want to include a piece of music called, appropriately enough, “Urbanophile”. Looks like I have a new theme song. And since I like electronic music and this is a good piece, so much the better.
Thanks to my twitter alert setup, I was able to discover this via @paryodik. It appears to be by someone called Eriops Tie from France. This is part of a forthcoming album called “URBA”. You can sample more tracks here – and download Urbanophile too. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Believe it or not there are other folks in the world using the Urbanophile name, though of course as an American I think I’m the original and the best! There’s a German-language site called “Urbanophil” (Netzwerk für urbane Kultur). And there appears to be some type of a TV show in France called “Les Urbanophiles“.
Sunday, March 2nd, 2014
Ed Glaeser’s plan for more skyscrapers in California?
[You may recall that when I posted Daniel Hertz's take on Chicago's zoning insanity I promised a somewhat different take. Well here it is. Daniel has already posted a reply. Your reasoned thoughts pro and con are of course always welcome - Aaron. ]
As housing prices and rents soar out of control in tightly regulated cities like San Francisco and New York, many people have called for a significant loosening of zoning rules to permit greater densification. Many policies contribute to unaffordable housing, including rent control, historic districts, eminent domain abuse, and building codes, but zoning puts an absolute cap on dwelling units per acre thus is generally part of any solution to the supply problem. What’s more, as recent commentators have started to notice, even many of America’s most dense cities are predominantly zoned for single family homes, calling into question the need to dedicate so much space to a single housing typology.
For example, a web site called Better Institutions posted this map of Seattle, in which all of the yellow districts are zoned exclusively for single family homes:
The poster lets his feelings be known by using scare quotes to denote single family “character” and blaming the zoning for Seattle’s high rents.
And Daniel Hertz posted a similar map of Chicago in which the red is single family homes only and yellow is industrial space unavailable for any residential use:
Some go beyond affordability, saying that we also need to significantly increase densities in central cities in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Harvard professor Ed Glaeser wrote an article advocating this subtitled, “To save the planet, build more skyscrapers—especially in California.” He says, “A better path would be to ease restrictions in the urban cores of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. More building there would reduce average commute lengths and improve per-capita emissions” and “Similarly, limiting the height or growth of New York City skyscrapers incurs environmental costs. Building more apartments in Gotham will not only make the city more affordable; it will also reduce global warming.” He claims that, “The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.”
These complaints and the proposed solution of more dense multi-family development may be true in a technical sense, but what would carrying that out mean for people who actually live in our cities?
Some critics may disdain the character of single family districts but few of these pundits ask the question of what eliminating lower-density housing actually means to the survival of the urban middle class. Districts, like the Portage Park example Daniel Hertz gave in Chicago, are some of the last bastions of middle class family life in the city. It’s clear that some densification can be implemented without radically changing the appearance or functioning of the built environment. Allowing 2-flats and coach houses, or even the corner apartment building or townhouse development, wouldn’t ruin Portage Park. There’s no reason such things should not be allowed. But nor would they make a major dent in affordability in places where a tidal wave of global demand is washing over the city such as in San Francisco.
To materially boost the number of units in an era in a manner that moderates prices in a highly desirable place like San Francisco would require massive changes in the built environment of its neighborhoods. This would radically transform the character and nature of the city in question. If San Francisco were really covered in skyscrapers, it would cease to be San Francisco— a city of low-rise buildings framed by hills that would be obscured by high rises. There may well be the same geography on the map labeled as such, but it would be a completely different place. We would have to destroy the city in order to save it.
One person who gets that is Alex Steffan. He’s angry about prices, saying that the “criminal lack of housing is a global scandal.” He’s also honest enough to forthrightly acknowledge that a sufficient scale of new homes to bend the cost curve would fundamentally change many of our cities:
We can build some housing incrementally, without changing the skyline or cityscape, but not anything like enough. To produce enough homes to matter, fast enough, we’re going to have to fundamentally alter parts of our cities. That, of course, demands a local government willing and able to plan and permit such widespread change. It also takes an array of homebuilders doing the actual work, often in more innovative and low-cost ways, like more collaborative housing, manufactured buildings and flexible living spaces. Most of all, it takes broader public insight into how large-scale development can improve our cities.
In other words, it’s a major change in communities that requires selling the public on the idea. He believes that young people will be the agents of change here. This shows perhaps one of the signature affects such changes would have. They would displace families by eliminating their preferred housing typologies in favor of forms more amenable to predominantly younger singles or the childless for whom living in an apartment with no backyard is more likely a relief than an imposition. But it’s hard to imagine cities as places for solving the problem of climate change if they are, like San Francisco, increasingly places devoid of families with children.
Steffan also says affordable housing is a social justice issue. Yet is it really social justice to require everyone to have equal access to San Francisco, population 825,000? I think not. Especially not when America is replete with urban centers whose biggest problems are depopulation and worthless houses that you can’t give away. There are plenty of options of places for people to live; we should look at making our now failing cities more attractive to people who may like the housing and neighborhood, if not for issues such as crime and poor schools. There’s no guarantee in America that you can afford to live in the place you might most want to choose. That’s long been true of suburbanites and city dwellers alike.
Also, the willingness to fundamentally reshape cities is odd in light of the fact that such previous attempts are uniformly viewed in the urbanist community as disasters. The idea of Manhattanizing San Francisco brings to mind nothing so much as Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris, in which the historical cityscape is replaced with towers in the park.
Fundamentally altering Paris
Of course no one is actually saying to take it this far, although Glaeser’s vision gets close it. But once we enshrine the rule that a certain threshold of unaffordability means more density and building regardless of neighborhood character, it’s hard to see what the limiting principle would be. Also, high rises or even buildings above 4-5 stories in height usually require expensive construction techniques, and thus are inherently costly.
It’s true, however, that cities are not static entities. Every downtown skyscraper in America is built on a site that was once used for something else. Yet we see this densification overall as a good thing. Had Manhattan been preserved as of its pre-skyscraper era, it’s not clear the city would have benefitted.
Clearly the zoning and building regulations in our cities are often too strict. Yet the disasters of previous generations’ radical change suggests that incrementalism is a better course. By all means allow two-unit houses, corner stores with upper story apartments, etc. into currently all-single family zones. Add areas where high rises are allowed the peripheries of districts currently zoned for such; warehouse districts as well as office buildings that are not well occupied. But don’t bring out the bulldozer wholesale. Additionally, a healthy city should make sure to embrace the entire palette of housing types – including single family homes. There’s more to making cities attractive to middle class families than just cost, and things like the prospect of a backyard for the kids to play in are among them.
And given the relatively few intact and attractive urban cores in America, prices are going to continue to go up. That’s true even with radical new building. As mentioned, San Francisco only has a bit over 800,000 people. Boston and DC have only about 600,000 each. How many people can you plausibly put into these places? Realistically, not all of us who would like to live in San Francisco or lower Manhattan are going to be able to do so. That’s true no matter how many skyscrapers we build.
This post originally appeared at New Geography on February 26, 2014.
Thursday, February 27th, 2014
Workers at Volkswagen’s Tennessee auto plant voted down representation by the UAW last week, a result the Detroit Free Press labeled a “devastating defeat” for the union. Conditions were as close to ideal as possible for the UAW to organize a Southern auto plant. For one thing, VW, prodded by the labor representatives on its supervisory board (German companies operate under a co-determination regime in which unions hold half the seats on the company’s board), tacitly endorsed the UAW’s organizing drive. The company even allowed the UAW into the plant to make pro-union presentations, something not afforded to employee critics of the union. Beyond pressure from Germany’s IG Metall union, VW wanted to set up works councils to help guide the plant, something forbidden by America’s archaic labor laws that only permit outside unions to represent workers.
There was some kerfuffle over local government officials in Tennessee urging the rejection of the UAW, and hinting that signing on to the union would lead VW to stop future investments. The UAW is asking the National Labor Relations Board to void the election because of that. The claim appears specious, but with the heavily politicized NLRB, anything is possible, particularly if VW refuses to mount a defense in order to aid the UAW over the wishes of its own workers.
But rather than outside pressure, it seems more likely that Volkswagen workers were already satisfied with their jobs. Beyond a works council, it’s hard to see what they would be getting. Pay is comparable to the Detroit Three. Working conditions appear to be excellent. No one is complaining. It’s a very different situation from the sit down strike era in which by organizing the UAW was able to significantly upgrade the condition of labor, in the auto industry, but ultimately also in the country at large. The specter of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, along with the disastrous experience at an early VW plant in the US some years back which ultimately closed after UAW strikes, seems to have led workers to conclude that the ineffable benefits of unionization weren’t worth the risks.
This result has emboldened organized labor’s critics. For example, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said unionized jobs were not welcome in her state. Apparently even the Detroit Three’s management is worried about the union’s future.
What then should the UAW and the American labor movement do, at least with regards to private industry?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Who caused GM and Chrysler to go bankrupt? The blame clearly lies with management. Whatever the flaws of the union, they weren’t the ones charged with running the company. Management was. Other heavily unionized companies managed to make the transformation required to succeed. General Electric did it. Caterpillar, a UAW shop, did it. CAT fought a lengthy and bruising battle that left wounds which will never heal in Peoria, yet today they are an American industrial champion in the global economy. The automakers’ management by constrast never had the stomach for tough choices or tough fights.
Instead, their executives lived like kings. The stories I’ve heard from friends who worked at these companies blows my mind. My one friend, who was a manager at GM, had to collect a company Escalade, pick up an executive’s wife at the airport, and chauffeur her around shopping on Michigan Ave. in Chicago during the auto show. He also had to make sure the exec’s hotel room was properly prepped with the right drinks and chocolates. Another friend told of buildings at Chrysler in which there were doors you could only use you were above a certain classification level in rank. The order of the names on memos had to be in the correct pecking order. On and on. Even if these were exaggerated, the various stories from different people in different companies – all of which happened during a time in which these companies were in steep decline – shows an extraordinarily arrogant management culture.
Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to see the relevancy of traditional union models to the modern American workplace. The VW vote shows that they have little to offer, and perhaps might even be a negative. In fact, the enthusiasm of IG Metall for the UAW might not be all that it seems. They represent German workers. And it’s in the best interest of those workers to make American plants inefficient so as to reduce the incentives to offshore from Germany to America. Keep in mind, for VW, America, like Eastern Europe, is a low cost location.
If you look at it, unions may be on the last institutions in America that haven’t rethought their business model for the 21st century. They still want to play hardball to organize, then insist on things like crazy work rule systems and puristic seniority pay structures, political advocacy, etc. What has that gotten them? The private sector is down to like 6% unionized, much of it in industries that are increasingly subject to foreign competition and thus whose management cannot give much away without sabotaging their business.
But could there be a role for unions if they rethought their entire approach? I Think there could be. We keep hearing about a workforce gap in skilled technical workers. We also have a collegiate model of education that’s churning out too many semi-employable graduates with mountains of debt they can’t pay back. And companies increasingly what “just in time” labor the way they want just in time delivery of materials. Why can’t the unions be part of the solution to this?
If unions repositioned themselves as the go to place for skilled labor – or even just workers who can pass a drug test and are able to operate at the level of expectations for the modern factory in a low skilled context – this would be a hugely valuable service.
The one part of the union movement that still seems to be doing fairly well is the trade unions. Many of them have long operated on this model. You get into the union where the union trains you and are staffed on a project basis (e.g., constructing a bridge). The union delivers your benefits and pensions, based on payments from the employers. While this system does have its problems – witness the recent racketeering indictment of Philadelphia ironworkers for violent intimidation (they called themselves the THUGS, The Helpful Union Guys, I’m not making this up) – but in general when I ride an elevator up to the 50th floor of a skyscraper, I’m glad it was built by union labor.
Trade unions and their hiring halls are basically contract consulting providers of the type that routinely provide technical employees to major corporations. Why can’t other unions, reconstituted as a type of worker’s collective, do the same thing? And unlike contracting firms, they wouldn’t have to take nearly as big a middleman’s cut.
This is only one speculation of course. But the need for unions to reinvent their business model into something that’s relevant to the 21st century economy is urgent. With continued declines in membership and the rise of right to work laws in places like even Michigan and Indiana, they’d better figure it out fast before it’s too late.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.
I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.
Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.
A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”
There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.
But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Sunday, February 23rd, 2014
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has a chapter entitled “Why Among the Americans All Honest Occupations Are Considered Honorable.” In it he noted that because America lacked an aristocratic tradition of leisure, labor had not been stigmatized as something inherently degrading to man:
In America no one is degraded because he works, for everyone about him works also; nor is anyone humiliated by the notion of receiving pay, for the President of the United States also works for pay. He is paid for commanding, other men for obeying orders. In the United States professions are more or less laborious, more or less profitable; but they are never either high or low: every honest calling is honorable.
Not only was work not inherently degrading, anything one did, whether it be serving as president or pushing a broom, was equally as valid as anything anyone else did. They may have been economically distinct, but they were ontologically identical. If you put in the proverbial honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, if you provided for yourself and your family, then you and your work were worthy of the honor and respect of your fellows. What’s more, in America to not work was what indicated personal degradation of spirit. Per Tocqueville:
The notion of labor is therefore presented to the mind, on every side, as the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence. Not only is labor not dishonorable among such a people, but it is held in honor; the prejudice is not against it, but in its favor. In the United States a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living. It is for the purpose of escaping this obligation to work that so many rich Americans come to Europe, where they find some scattered remains of aristocratic society, among whom idleness is still held in honor.
This idea of the honorableness of work held sway in America for a long time, but that time is past. In America today, the very concept of work qua work is increasingly held in contempt, as in the aristocratic age.
This surely began before I was born, perhaps in the 60s era of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Yet I have personally witnessed a major sea change in the perception of labor in my own lifetime over the course of several signal events.
The Volcker Recession
America has long been the industrial powerhouse of the world, reaching its apogee in the 50s and 60s. By the 70s era of gas lines and stagflation, it was clear something was wrong, though not exactly what. Yet on the whole America conducted business as usual. Arrogant management continued to be more or less indifferent to product quality and inefficiency. Labor continued to engage in frequent strikes as if there were still massive gains to appropriate.
In the late 70s things started to change. Jimmy Carter began a major deregulation of key industries. Reagan came into office in the 1980s promising supply side tax cuts. He was also hostile to unions. Early in his administration, he fired every air traffic controller who had gone out on an illegal strike.
But it was Fed chairman Paul Volcker who had the most profound impact, jacking the prime rate (the most widely reported figure of the time) north of 20% in order to break the back of inflation, sending the country into a steep recession. Here’s a chart of the fed funds rate that gives a picture of the extremity of these rate hikes:
This sent the country into a steep recession that caused massive industrial layoffs. It also did destroy inflation up until the present day, and cleared away the debris of the 70s to create a long and powerful expansion that lasted pretty much up to the dotcom recession of 2000.
The Idea of the McJob
When I was a high school student my first real job was bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie. This wasn’t an unusual experience. I remember as a kid that many adults would tell me with no apparent embarrassment that their first job had been at McDonald’s. Holding a job like this was just part of the cycle of life, much like going into the service used to be.
Two events changed this in the 1980s. The first was the recession, which shattered the illusion of American industrial dominance forever. The whole idea of a good job for life on the assembly line was now seen to be dangerously naive. This is the era when “you absolutely must go to college to succeed in life” meme took hold. It was already clear that the long term trajectory of manufacturing and a middle class job with a high school diploma (or less) was heading to the scrap heap.
The second was the closing of the bootstrap frontier. By this I mean the severe curtailing of the ability of people to work their way up from the bottom in business. How many old school Wall Street types started in the proverbial mail room? A lot of them. My father’s wife started work at age 17 as a teller at a small savings and loan in Louisville. Twenty five years later she was running all of mortgage lending for Fifth Third Bank’s Kentucky operations – all without a college degree. Even today you hear CEOs – usually in their 50s or older – talk about how they started with their company by driving a truck or something.
Those days are largely gone now. While in some industries like retail you can still work your way up, it’s less common, and you’re almost certainly not going to make it without getting a college degree along the way. Nobody on Wall Street is starting in the mail room today. Techies who drop out of school to start companies are starting in effect at the C-level of their organization, or in an otherwise high status position, not a traditional entry level job.
With formerly entry level jobs increasingly ones with no to a limited career path and low pay and benefits, and the only way to career success seen as being through college, a new concept of work started to emerge. In 1986 it was given a name, the “McJob.”
The phrase “McJob” was designed to label a real and important effect, and presciently so as we see today. Namely the bifurcation of the economy. Nevertheless, it went beyond a critique of economic conditions to something more fundamental; it said these were jobs not worth doing and unworthy of human dignity to hold. It eroded the idea of work itself as honorable.
Today I’m amazed how many teenagers and college students don’t work at all, especially not at old school grocery bagging or burger flipping jobs. It seems that you’re better off getting in more extra-curricular activities or doing volunteer work to burnish your resume than actually working, which says something profound.
Strauss and Howe’s Generations
In 1992 Neil Howe and William Strauss published the book Generations. This book took a Vico-like cyclical view of history in which four generational archetypes repeated over time in an endless cycle. This cycle was presented as de facto deterministic unless some severe outside shock interrupted it.
Howe and Strauss coined the term “Millennial Generation” to identify a current instantiation of one of their archetypes. In their cyclical theory, the Millennials were a reincarnation of the Greatest Generation that lived through the Depression and won World War II, leaving modern American prosperity in their wake. The Millennials, they said, would achieve similarly great things. Because of their cyclical theory, this result was presented as an almost historic inevitability, even though the Millenials were still small children.
This concept captured the public imagination in way that led to a change in the way that generation, much of it as yet unborn, was to be raised. Howe and Strauss had already observationally described the “helicopter parenting” of Millennials vs. the latch key kids of Generation X (they would say think “Baby on Board” signs vs. “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Damien Omen II” in which children were literally Antichrists or demonic). This was already underway.
What changed is that Millennials began to be told from nearly birth that they were destined to be nothing less than the salvation of America, that they are more moral, more community spirited than any previous generation, and like the Greatest Generation they would slay the dragons threatening our country, leading us forward into a better brighter future. When Barack Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he was flattering a particularly Millennial conceit. It’s no surprised they loved him.
The effects this produced in the Millennials have been much written about. But one key one was the sacralization of their own personal desires. After all, if you’re really destined to change the world for the better, society needs to adapt to you, not you to society.
That’s why workplaces in America have bent over backwards to accommodate Millennial preferences. We also see a generation that wants not just to have a job, but a job with meaning. People who would rather do something that creates some sort of public good (like teach in an inner city school) or pursue a particular personal passion than to engage in the soulless search for money.
There’s much that’s good and noble in this. On the other hand, it has redefined work into just another lifestyle accoutrement. Work is no longer primal, central. Rather, it is part of the portfolio of your life. The role of work has become, ultimately, self-actualization and the satisfaction of Millennials’ sacralized personal desires. In that regard, the line between work and play and life have blurred. In part that’s because the notion of work as something you just have to do, something that is part and parcel of being a fully formed adult, no longer exists. Work properly so called must be an extension of your being. Yes, if forced financially, Millennials will work any job they need to. And they are more than willing to engage in productive labor. But their idea of a job is to somehow promote personal growth or self-actualization. You can do work that doesn’t, but it’s second rate – a McJob. Again, this shows the bifurcation not just of income, but in views of work. Some work is worth doing, other work is not.
Though I’m not a Millennial, I should be sure to include myself as well, since I’m writing this blog instead of running multi-million dollar technology projects like I used to. So guilty as charged.
The Dot Com Boom
The last hurrah of the Volcker boom was the dotcom bubble. This was a Gen X and Boomer phenomenon, but it paved the way for the Millennial expectation of work as a fun and fulfilling place, not just a workplace.
Prior to the dotcom boom, I wore a suit to work every day and sat through terrible traffic driving to a client in the suburbs. I can assure you that I would have much rather have been downtown in casual clothes. This desire to be in the center of town didn’t originate with Millennials. But that was simply the way the world worked. We obviously wanted fulfilling and high paying jobs, but we realized that work was after all work. That’s why they paid us – to do things we didn’t want to do, like sit in traffic for hours every week. What’s that they used to say? – that’s why we call it work.
The dotcom bubble changed that. The desperation for talent was so high that anyone who could spell .com could get a job as a programmer. The Silicon Valley tech culture and catering to employees became the norm. It was insane in some ways. My employer used to have a beer cart come by on some afternoons, and that wasn’t unusual. While some of it got dialed back after the collapse, this permanently changed the culture of work.
Perry’s Deli in downtown Chicago used to put up “celebrity boards” of photos Perry took of his customers. In the 1997 board, about 75% of the people were in suits. By the 2000 celebrity board, it was more like 75% casual. It flipped almost overnight like dominoes falling.
This established the idea that employers must cater to the whims of fickle employees or they will cross the street to somewhere better. This concept has persisted as an ideal (e.g, in the “creative class”) even though the bargaining power of labor has collapsed since then. It’s no longer seen that workers should have to endure unpleasantness as part of their jobs or conform to employer expectations around dress, location, or hours. They may do it, but again such compromises are seen as defects, and generally in the employer. An enlightened employer, we think, should instead cater to the desires of employees.
Proletarianization of the Middle Class
The truth is, the economy never really recovered from the dotcom crash. The 2000s recovery was anemic, and we are de facto still in the Great Recession. The macro trend of bifurcation has so proceeded that the income and wealth gaps are now major public issues. This has in effect created two labor markets. One is the narrow high end market which still lives in like it’s the dotcom bubble. The other is everybody else, increasingly squeezed and increasingly low wage, a phenomenon Joel Kotkin has labeled the proletarianization of the middle class.
Those at the bottom are increasingly seen as exploited, and in a sense they are, though mostly by the system rather than by individual employers who are only responding to the new marketplace realities, albeit one in part created by those selfsame firms. But what’s more, in effect any job that doesn’t exhibit the self-actualization ethic of the top tier positions is now viewed as a McJob, regardless of pay. The values of the dotcom bubble and the Millennials have become normative. Work that does not live up to those ideals is seen as unworthy and impugning rather than affirming the dignity of the worker. In short, work itself as traditionally understood is now held in a form of contempt.
We see this in various ways. For example, many of those who advocate for more low skill immigration say that immigrants perform “jobs Americans won’t do.” But Americans did those jobs not long ago. What’s changed about those jobs? The jobs actually haven’t changed, just our attitude towards them. What’s more, if that new attitude is valid, is it moral to expect brown skinned foreigners to do work we think is beneath our dignity? I am a big champion of immigration, but not based on this type of logic.
Or consider the reactions of some on the left to the Congressional Budget Office finding that Obamacare will cause the equivalent of two and a half million people to voluntarily stop working. Europhiles have long bemoaned that America’s don’t take the whole month of August off, but the suggestion of the New York Times that this is “a liberating result of the law” seems a bit extreme. It may well be that there are some with such an extreme hardship that this does make sense, but the whole idea that people need to be liberated from unpleasant choices or tradeoffs related to work implies that work itself is not of that much value. To them it’s better to support people indefinitely on benefits of one sort or another than for people to be forced to work at Wal-Mart or something. The New York Times ideal is an aristocratic one; the aim is not to have to work at all, at least not at anything that isn’t inherently attractive to do.
I think there is indeed a serious problem out there with the quality of jobs and the two tier economy. In fact, I myself recently wrote that some people realistically will need to be supported on benefits indefinitely, and that terminating benefits to force them into $9 an hour is building a plantation economy, something too many on the right have no problem with. So I’m in the mix here. But in attacking legitimate problems, I’m concerned that we’ve undermined a core philosophical underpinning of American success, namely the view of the dignity of work and the ontological equality of labor.
We absolutely must focus on upgrading the quality of jobs. But apart from proposals to increase the minimum wage, there’s been precious little in the way of ideas to boost the fortunes of the middle and working classes. And even there the problem in seeing the inherent value of the worker remains. I don’t see those who advocate a higher minimum wage ever saying a kind word about working for McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, no matter how much those firms pay.
I believe the decline in our view of work is a consequence of economic change more than a philosophical movement per se. Yet the problem is not inherently an economic one. Even if we reverted to the status quo ante in our economy, it’s unlikely we’d change in our basic attitudes.
In my view one of the keys to actually working to change the quality of jobs is to see the worker’s performance of them as again having inherent dignity and worth, that workers are dignified in their labor no matter what job they happen to hold. The people who go to work at Wal-Mart or a warehouse every day reliably, who do their best even at a less than exciting jobs, ought to be seen earning a type of honor. This comes not from the work being done, but the person performing it and the idea of work itself. The difficult choice to take a less than self-actualizing job and doing it well ought to be seen as a better path than benefits or drugs or other alternatives. Of course receiving assistance shouldn’t be stigmatized (I’ve had government benefits myself). Many of those on drugs had circumstances that made it difficult to escape, etc. But ought we not see avoiding that and finding work, even difficult or dull work, as the normative path people should aspire to, not something from which we need to be “liberated”? I think we should.
One organization that figured this out is the military. Why do they make soldiers and such show such exacting performance and attention to detail on ridiculous tasks like making a bed, polishing boots, or swabbing decks? Part of it is instilling discipline no doubt. But part of it is teaching that the nobility of the task comes from that of the warrior, not the nobility of the warrior from that of the task. That’s why generally speaking military roles are held in high esteem both by those performing them and by the public at large, even if our military is often deployed for dubious ends.
Heck, even the communists got it, in their elevating the nobility of the farmer and the laborer, in propaganda if not in practice. This is no doubt part of its great appeal, something we might learn from.
The dignity and honor of work itself needs to once again be held in esteem by Americans. We should rediscover our inner Tocqueville. We must again see all honest occupations as inherently honorable, even McJobs. Work must once again be seen as “the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence.” Perhaps then we will actually set about the difficult task of making the work worthy of the regard in which we hold the people in their doing of it, not just moan about it.
This concept of the decline of work first struck me many years ago when I saw a TV commercial that I believe was urging people to go to college. I can’t find it on You Tube and the details are a bit fuzzy, but I believe it starred Larry Bird working as a clerk in a hardware store paint department, presumably a megastore like Home Depot. While mixing paint he would wad up paper and throw it perfectly in the trash can every time. The moral was that if you don’t develop your talents, you could end up mixing paint, and what a terrible fate that would be. But what’s inherently wrong with being a clerk in a hardware store? There was a day not long ago when nobody would have thought twice about it. It was then that I realized something had fundamentally changed in how we looked at work. Update: A commenter informs me that this was actually a commercial for Prodigy internet service from 1999.
Friday, February 21st, 2014
I’ve said many times that it is predominately larger metropolitan regions of 1-1.5 million people or larger that are best positioned to succeed in the global economy. This is in effect the minimum viable scale to compete. These cities have bigger talent pools, thicker labor markets, the right infrastructure (e.g., major airports) and amenities, bigger local markets, more specialized suppliers, and more entrepreneurial ferment. Smaller places that don’t have a unique asset (such as a major university) are going to struggle.
We see that on display again in Michigan, where Battle Creek based Kellogg’s is opening an operations center in Grand Rapids. This will employ 300-600 people, including some transferred from the headquarters. As the company put it:
Kellogg CEO John Bryant told The Grand Rapids Press/MLive they chose Grand Rapids for the new center after looking at nine possible locations around the U.S. as part of a new corporate restructuring initiative dubbed “Project K.”
Bryant said the company chose Grand Rapids because 40 other corporations have created similar service centers in the area, creating a labor pool from which Kellogg hopes to draw.
“We’re very excited about the Grand Rapids location. There’s a good population base for this sort of activity,” Bryant said.
Leaders in Battle Creek are angry about the company choosing to open in nearby Grand Rapids:
“This was a unilateral action by the Kellogg Company,” [former Battle Creek mayor and U.S. congressman Dr. Joe] Schwarz said Monday, “blindside, if you will. And that’s not the way people in Battle Creek, especially those that have been here a long time and worked with Kellogg on so many issues like myself, that simply is not the type of behavior we’ve come to expect from the company.”
At the time, Jim Hettinger was CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited. In a column for the Battle Creek Enquirer, Hettinger expressed his frustration over Kellogg’s announcement, saying the city has continually gone to great lengths to accommodate the company’s needs.
I understand the frustration, but at the end of the day, this is the reality of the modern world we live in. We see similar business decisions every day. Kellogg’s is in Battle Creek for historical reasons. There’s no way the company would ever choose to locate there today. The changing demands of the global marketplace create a need for skills that are easier to find in or lure to a place like Grand Rapids (metro population one million) than Battle Creek (metro population 135,000). That’s reality.
Note here that cost is simply not the issue. Both Grand Rapids and Battle Creek are lower cost locations. It’s clearly about being in a place that has better scale to serve the needs of a business serving upwards of 600 white collar employees.
This divergence understandably fuels resentment and bitterness within states, as I noted in a recent column in Governing magazine. I frequently find that to locals it’s particularly galling when a company does something like this within the state boundaries. Had Kellogg’s opened in Austin, Texas, I strongly suspect Battle Creek wouldn’t be nearly so bitter. I’ve long noted the same thing in Indiana, where smaller towns and cities would far rather see an out of state company buy their local bank or whatever than have an Indianapolis company come in. (Though I’ve also noticed this has changed for the better in the last 20 years). The reality is these jobs could have left the state entirely. Had Grand Rapids not been there, they probably would have.
This is one reason I have pounded the table for more expanded regional thinking by the likes of Grand Rapids. It’s not an easy problem, but if they can’t demonstrate that there’s a win-win in here somewhere for regional metros like Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, resentment will become entrenched. This can be difficult because the answers aren’t obvious and places like Grand Rapids – which itself is of marginal scale and what’s more not on the trade routes in the way a place like Columbus, Ohio is – are pedaling hard to just to make sure they themselves can make it. But longer term I think it’s imperative.
In the meantime, it’s important for state leaders to understand and respond to these realities. If they don’t, they will only drive business out of the state completely, just like effectively Indiana’s entire banking industry got gobbled up with little to show for it.
PS: One exception I’ve noted to this rule: Chicago. I didn’t seem to hear the same anger from Decatur over ADM that we see here. I think in part it’s because they understand Chicago is just a far different place than them. It’s such a unique city that losing a small executive headquarters doesn’t even seem like genuine poaching. Plus the entire leadership of the state is Chicago-centric, and and their top priority is building up global city Chicago.
Thursday, February 20th, 2014
I’ve got to admit that when I moved to New England from the Midwest, it was a bit of a disappointment. The Midwest tends to get dismissed as flyover country, and to the extent that people have formed an opinion of it at all, it’s generally not super positive: post-industrial, boring, narrow-minded, etc. New England by contrast enjoys a very high reputation and standing in the world as an intellectual and cultural center, as well as a bastion of progressive thinking.
I had spent very little time there, and that mostly in Boston. But my image of it was pretty much what you’d think of as Old England from Masterpiece Theater or something: quaint villages (albeit with Dunkin’ Donuts on the green), manor houses, and sophistication, though perhaps overlaid with an veneer of Boston hostility. In other words, my expectations were pretty high based on New England’s reputation.
Imagine my surprise when I moved there and discovered that it’s exactly like the Midwest in a surprising number of ways. Much of New England is a post-industrial landscape not that dissimilar to the classic Rust Belt, though occasionally with most attractive mill architecture and such. Its village centers have seen better days and even the town centers of places with big reputations are usually nowhere near the league of say Chicago’s nicer suburbs. Though voting Democratic, New Englanders largely display the same sorts of provincial attitudes ones finds in the Midwest. Many places are characterized mostly by lifers and people who don’t get out much. It has an aging population notably lacking in diversity.
I actually found Rhode Island surprisingly similar to where I grew up in Southern Indiana near Louisville. The state’s topography (oceanfront aside) is much like Southern Indiana – rolling hills and trees. Providence is like Louisville, with a smallish super-creative and talented core surrounded by a sea of blue collar communities. The two cities even seem to brag about many of the same things, like top quality restaurants. My brother made a nearly identical observation when he came to visit, exclaiming of West Warwick, “This is just like New Albany!” And he was right.
The same is true of much of the rest of the place. Most of Mass and Connecticut are similar. I grew up in a town called Laconia, Indiana. So naturally I had to visit Laconia, New Hampshire. During one visit to the lake district I took a drive home on US 3 and observed one depressed small town after another, no different from what you’d see driving through the Midwest. Northern New England’s mountains are more scenic than Midwest hills, but there are still plenty of places in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – including many high quality lakes – which hold up very well.
I should note that the lakes are one area I did see some differences. Midwestern lakes tend to be nouveau riche as it were. Whereas something like Squam Lake has older cabins and such that have often been in families for generations and which were designed to be mostly hidden from view of the lake. People there tend to also love their classic wooden boats, which is definitely old school. This is one place the air of old money elite came through.
But for the most part, I was not overwhelmed. This is not to say that New England is no good. After all, I like the Midwest a lot. So saying that New England is like the Midwest isn’t necessarily an insult coming from me. But what I do find interesting is the radically different reputations of the regions, when they are far more alike than you might think – certainly more alike than say the Midwest and West Coast (or Texas). Clearly history plays a role here. But the present day realities are far different from the era of the Pilgrims. From a civic branding perspective, this shows that marketplace reputation can be in a sense divorced from reality for an extended period of time.
Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
Here’s one that’s been making the rounds of a guy going snowboarding through the streets of New York City. Not as cool as the Detroit urban skiing adventure, but still fun stuff. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
And this week a music break courtesy of Drag City recording artist Joanna Newsom. I’m not sure how to describe her music, but it’s good stuff. This track is called “Good Intentions Paving Company” (a Saul Bellow quote, I believe), from her 2010 album “Have One On Me.” If the You Tube embed doesn’t display, click here: