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Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Decline of the Midwest, the Rise of the South

The New York Times ran an article last week that’s nominally about football, but really gives insight into the decline of the Midwest and the rise of the South. Called “As Big Ten Declines, Homegrown Talent Flees,” this piece ties in perfectly with my recent essay on the differing social states of the Midwest and South. The NYT’s money quote says it all:

The SEC sold excellence. The Big Ten sold tradition.

Ironically, it is the formerly stigmatized “backwoods” South that has embraced excellence while the former industrial champion of the Midwest has spurned it. I don’t think that Midwesterners understand how much things have changed in the South. I hear the same stereotypical view of the South that might have had a lot of truth decades ago but have changes substantially. For example, those who think it is both a good thing and bad have quipped that Indiana is like an extension of the South into the Midwest. I don’t think so.

For example, Charlotte built a light rail system. Dallas has poured a billion dollars into a downtown arts district. Atlanta has a multi-billion infill strategy around its former Belt Line railroad. Nashville eliminated downtown parking minimums and implemented a form based code. South Carolina has its German style apprenticeship program. North Carolina built Research Triangle Park – in 1959. Southern cities like Atlanta have proudly claimed and built success around their black heritage. And Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce CEO said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” Outside of Chicago, does anybody in the Midwest talk like that?

Sure, there are bits and pieces here and there in the Midwest that speak to excellence. But they are the anomalies in a region that has retrogressed. Whereas in the South they’ve massively elevated their game in the last 40 years and are working hard to keep getting better. Sure, low costs and taxes play a role in their success. Climate and the universality of air conditioning as well. But they aren’t content to rest on just that. They want to get better. Meanwhile the Midwest is regressing towards what the South used to be such as, for example, by turning paved roads back to gravel because they can’t afford the maintenance.

The NYT piece brings up an interesting factor driving the rise of the SEC vs. the Big Ten, namely the shift in underlying population ratios over time: “An instructive comparison is Michigan and Georgia. In 1960, Michigan had twice Georgia’s population; in 1990, it was nearly one and a half times as big; today, their populations are roughly equivalent.”

The decline in Midwest population and economic heft brings with it a price that has to be paid. It’s showing up in the football world today. But it’s sure to hit the academic prowess of the Midwest’s major state schools as well. How long can these places maintain their relative rankings of excellence without the financial firepower to play in the big leagues? There’s more inertia on the academic side, but don’t think it won’t eventually happen here as well. The same is true in many other aspects of civic life. Even mighty Chicago has nearly bankrupted itself in its efforts to keep up with other global cities.

The Big Ten obviously saw the writing on the wall and decided to expand outside the region. I dislike this for reasons of, naturally, tradition. But it’s a rational response to a declining marketplace. Similarly, the Cleveland Orchestra established a Miami residency in the pursuit of cash to keep its artistic excellence intact. Might some of these institutions at some point become Midwest in name only? Time will tell.

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

In Praise of Boring

My latest piece is online in the Guardian. It’s called “In Praise of Boring Cities.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got herself in a bit of trouble for dismissing Arlington, VA as a “soulless suburb.” I argue that to a great extent soulless is in the eye of the beholder. And that a lot of inner cities could stand to be a lot more Maytag repairman type boring when it comes to actual delivering on the services citizens deserve.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Soulless” and “boring” are to some extent judgmental code words for “stuff I don’t like.” Sophisticated urbanites tend to look down on much of suburban life. But I suspect many suburbanites find downtown obsessions – contemporary art, say, or elaborate ways of preparing coffee – equally tedious. Why isn’t their thumbs-down verdict on urban pretentiousness just as valid?
….
Those of us who love urban areas’ walkability, variety and novelty often have a tendency to universalise – not to say sacralise – our values and tastes. But in an ever more diverse world, different people are going to have different ideas about the good life. We need to be more tolerant of those who make different choices. (In Arlington you can’t even argue that the car culture is killing the environment, since as Adler notes they’ve focused much more on transit and density than your average place). Some people like stability, predictability, rootedness and a lot of what suburbs have to offer. There’s nothing wrong with that. We frequently fail to recognise that our own personal preferences are in most cases just that. And too often in urbanist discussions, that means white hipster preferences.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

How Detroit Streamlined Its Fight Against Blight

The PBS News Hour show did a segment yesterday about the efforts to remove blight (vacant homes) in Detroit via streamlined demolitions and incentives for investment. If the embedded video doesn’t display for you, click over to You Tube.

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Cities: Detroit

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Detroit Water City

Detroit’s bankruptcy judge just ruled that he can’t halt water shutoffs in the city. I make the argument that Detroit should continue with its shutoff program in my latest piece at City Journal called “Detroit Water City.”

To be sure the process was bungled out of the gate. The city first should have started with commercial accounts, for example. But in a country where we have food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 and a slew of other poverty programs up to an including so-called “Obama phones,” does anyone really believe we never thought that poor people needed water? Of course those with bona fide hardships should get a repayment plan option and assistance where necessary. But those complaining don’t seem interested in validating actual need. The Detroit Water Project, for example, which allows donors to pay overdue water bills on behalf of Detroit residents, doesn’t even ask about whether or not the recipient is in need. It specifically boasts, with emphasis, that there’s “no paperwork required.”

As I put it in the piece:

What Detroit’s citizens need most from their government is well-functioning public services. A water utility with 50 percent delinquencies is a reflection of a city that has failed its basic responsibilities. Fixing DWSD is but one of the many changes necessary to restore Detroit—but if city officials don’t have the stomach to collect long-overdue water bills, how will they undertake tougher reforms?

Click through to read the whole thing.

Also at City Journal, Steve Eide has an article sounding a note of optimism about Detroit, reminding us of the state of the South Bronx in the 1970s. It’s called “Lessons From a Catastrophe.” Here’s an excerpt:

The most important lesson that Detroit can derive from the South Bronx’s experience is that things can get better. Many despaired over the South Bronx’s future during the 1970s out of conviction that New York City was ungovernable. How could a city incapable of preventing 14-year-olds from defacing subway cars be expected to revive a neighborhood resembling post-World War II Berlin? But the skeptics were wrong, as more effective government—as opposed to simply less or more—proved central to New York’s epic crime decline and many other municipal improvements. As encouraging as the news is about its downtown, we’ll know Detroit has turned a corner when local government has shed its reputation for dysfunction in the eyes of independent observers and, even more importantly, local taxpayers.

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Thoughts On My Neighborhood Post-Ferguson

Some folks asked me to comment on Ferguson, MO. I don’t have anything to add to the massive amount that has already been written, but it did get me thinking about my own neighborhood and the racial dynamics that exist in America.

I live in a mixed race neighborhood on the North Side of Indianapolis called various names, including South of Broad Ripple (SoBro) and Keystone-Monon. It’s a racially diverse area, mostly featuring wood frame 2-3br/1-ba worker cottages built around wartime. It’s likely always been working class or starter home housing as the smallness of the homes limits their value in a city where there are near infinite tracts of similar building stock.

If asked to guess at the racial mix, I would have said 70% white/30% black. Clicking into the NYT census viewer, I discovered that my census tract is actually 49% black/42% white. Here’s a screen shot (click to enlarge):

As you can see, my tract lies along a diagonal transition area from predominantly white to predominantly black areas. The tract immediately north of me is 82% white. The one immediately south is 62% black, and south of that black population percentage runs upwards of the 90s. It’s easy to see how difficult it can be to eyeball the makeup of the area.

Just to the west is Meridian-Kessler, one of the city’s most desirable residential neighborhoods. About a mile and a half north is the core of Broad Ripple, a commercial district known for its nightlife aimed at the 20s set.

One might think this area is primed for gentrification, but that’s not the case. As it happens, those more desirable neighborhoods I mentioned themselves have had a lot of challenges such as abandoned homes and commercial vacancies. There’s virtually nothing that could be considered gentrification in Indianapolis generally, and certainly not at extensive scale.

Because of its city location proximate to desirable commercial nodes, the area has seen an influx of young families, often in their 20s with one young child. Some savvy rehabbers have also purchased. But the backbone of the neighborhood remains the black and white working class, often homeowners.

Because there’s longstanding integration and little gentrification pressure – and because unlike Ferguson this area is embedded inside of a large and diverse municipality, I haven’t sense much in the way of racial tensions. People seem quite friendly to each other to the most part. Personally I think it’s a great neighborhood and love living there. So does everyone else I’ve talked to.

On the surface, this would appear to be a successful integrated neighborhood, by American standards especially. But everything is not as it seems.

I’ve only lived here about eight months, but what I observed is similar to what I previously saw in Fountain Square, a type of parallel societies. In Fountain Square I called this “Artists and Appalachians.” In that case both groups are white. They share the same neighborhood geography, and even patronize some of the same establishments such as Peppy’s Grill and the Liquor Cabinet, but there was little social interaction between them apart from surface pleasantries.

I see the same here, only with a racial dimension. Blacks and whites get along, and even patronize some of the same stores, but there does not appear to be much in the way of real social capital that has developed between the two groups. This leaves the neighborhood extremely vulnerable to racial divisiveness if anything goes wrong.

This was illustrated to me by our local neighborhood group on the Next Door platform. This app is very popular in my neighborhood. However, judging from the avatar photos, it appears to be overwhelmingly white people who use it. Here’s an application that is building social capital in the neighborhood – I used to it meet my neighbors at the corner when I needed to borrow an extension ladder – but which has developed along racial boundaries. It seems to be spreading by word of mouth, and since existing social networks seem to be predominantly intra-race, it’s no surprise the online manifestations of them are as well.

There have been some property crimes in the area recently. This is sadly ubiquitous in all urban neighborhoods these days. My building (especially the garages) in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood was burglarized many times and we had to spend a lot of money to install high security doors and locks to try to stop it. My aunt and uncle just had their car stolen in the heart of Lincoln Park and even before that happened they told me theft was out of control there. These are two of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago. Even in my rural hometown theft is a common occurrence.

In short, I have no reason to believe the activity in my area is that unusual, either compared to other neighborhoods, or maybe even compared to the neighborhood’s own past. But thanks to apps like Next Door, we now know about every single incident of anything that occurs, whereas before that we would all have just gone about our business blissfully unaware of a lawnmower theft a couple blocks over unless it was we ourselves or someone we knew personally that got hit. (A neighborhood old timer posted a thread on Next Door to this very effect, saying that this ebb and flow of theft has been happening since he moved in during the 1970s)

As it happens, various neighbors believe believe they identified the culprit behind many similar incidents. As it happens, he’s an 18 year old black man from the neighborhood. I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, but apparently there’s a warrant out for him and he posted pictures of himself on Facebook pointing a pistol at the camera and such.

While people were zeroing in on their culprit, I noticed some started viewing any young black guy pausing too long in front of their house as suspicious. This was only a brief blip until such time as the specific person of interest was identified. However, this adds an instant racial dimension to matters, like it or not.

This wasn’t motivated by racial animus, but rather fear of being burglarized in a place where such burglaries were in fact occurring and where there was evidence that a particular black male was committing it. People in Lincoln Park and Lakeview can afford to take a philosophical view of theft. They are wealthy enough that having say a bicycle stolen is more annoyance than threat.

By contrast, in my working class area, not everyone can just whip out their debit card every time something goes wrong. In a response to an NYT piece extolling the virtues of minimalism, Tumblr writer Vruba suggested that living with minimal possessions is luxury for the well off:

Wealth is…having options and the ability to take on risk. If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying….If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.

In a neighborhood where some people are only a few rungs up on the ladder that provides stability in life, vigilance over your stuff is important, because it’s not easily replaced. Only half of American households could come up with $400 in an emergency. Replacing a lawn mower probably means going into credit card debt (or more credit card debt) for them.

Nevertheless, what this illustrates to me is the potential racial powder keg that lies under the surface of even seemingly placid and well-integrated communities. Race is simply an inescapable subtext to any interaction that crosses the color line, no matter how much we try to avoid it, and it adds contingent risk to social stability.

Why do I say this? Because I believe there’s little to no interracial social capital in these places that can withstand a hit to neighborhood cohesion. There’s no genuine solidarity that comes from genuinely living life together in a way that goes deeper than everyday pleasantries. Thus the risk that racial tensions can end up erupting in some way is ever present.

This is not unique at all to my neighborhood, which, as I said and want to stress again, is a great place full of great people. For example, a couple weeks ago I had drinks with someone in Cincinnati whose neighborhood had nearly identical demographics and dynamics, right down to the use of Next Door. We have tried to solve racial problems in America through institutional solutions. As important as many of those are, they are not a substitute for the human connections that allow us to weather the vagaries of life together.

How do we create interracial social capital? It’s not easy. Earlier this year I had dinner with a resident of Over the Rhine in Cincinnati who wanted to create a personal connection to his black neighbors, but wasn’t sure how. Frankly none of us at dinner had any great ideas. I suggested perhaps joining a local black church, but that only works if attending church is something you do.

As the Next Door case shows, the path of least resistance doesn’t work here. Our default pathways for building social networks follow the color lines. And heck, books have been written about the decline in social capital within white America itself. Crossing the color line is even more difficult and requires a high degree of intentionality.

I spent some time in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC last week. Walltown is a historically black neighborhood adjacent to Duke University. While gentrification and university encroachment are issues, again the housing stock type limits upside on pricing. There has been some influx of white resident as well as Latinos, but a strong black presence is still there.

I visited with people from a black church there as part of a tour led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, a white resident who co-founded Rutba House, a Christian intentional community (their term is “new monasticism”). Half of their spaces are allocated for those in need of transitional housing (the homeless, ex-offenders, etc), mostly people of color. I’d guess Jonathan is to the left of your average Boulder resident. He named Rutba House after a town in Iraq he was at during a private 2003 peace tour of the country during the war, which should give you an idea.

A big part of what the various faith groups there are doing is trying to do is figure out a way for blacks and whites to actually exist together in real community in Walltown, not just live in the same geography. I think he’d be the first to tell you that they’ve had at best partial success. This shows the difficulty, even with lots of people of various races committing to make it work.

What’s the answer? I don’t know, but I do believe a big part of the problem is lack of social capital at ground level. Again, this isn’t necessarily solely a matter of race, as the Fountain Square example illustrates, but in multi-racial neighborhoods the racial dimension is always present to some extent and certainly amplifies things. So it shouldn’t surprise us that even in places where everyone does appear to get along, it doesn’t necessarily take much to set things off. I think most Midwest cities could easily have social unrest with the right triggering incident. While there are some unique aspects to Ferguson such as the political geography of St. Louis metro, no city should feel superior just because it didn’t happen there.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I think we ought to spend some time thinking about the ways technology can actually make things worse. Not only does social media fan the flames of every debate – Twitter and Facebook may be great for many things, but substantive discourse isn’t one of them – but apps like Next Door that are designed to create social capital may actually have the unintended side effect of deepening racial divisions. This despite the fact that the one person I know who works for Next Door is passionate about creating the kind of interracial social capital I’m describing.

This perhaps should be a cautionary tale when it comes to technology-centric views of solving urban problems. There’s no app for solving America’s persistent racial gaps.

PS: I will be aggressively moderating comments or disabling commenting on this post if necessary.

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Highway Boondoggles

US PIRG, a left oriented activist group, last week released a report called “Highway Boondoggles,” examining eleven highway projects they say are unneeded and will cost $13 billion.

Highway spending is clearly a blind spot for conservatives, who often otherwise decry excessive government spending. But as I’ve observed for some time, there’s basically no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most fiscally conservative governor is willing to kill it.

I happen to think we do need to invest in roads, but there are a lot of massively unneeded projects. I’m not familiar with all of the eleven projects in question, but of those I’ve looked into at all, they do indeed seem dubious. The Opportunity Corridor in Cleveland being one. Double decking I-94 in Milwaukee also seems of doubtful value given that metro Milwaukee has long been one of the slowest growing large regions in the country in terms of population, and both the city and county of Milwaukee don’t want it.

Check the whole thing out.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Neighborhood Poverty Dynamics

Carol Coletta is now with the Knight Foundation, where she’s started up a podcast series called “Knight Cities.”

Her most recent episode is an interview with economist Joe Cortright about a study he did about the evolution of poor neighborhoods in America. This is an important, if depressing, study in which he looked at how poverty changed in city neighborhoods at the census tract level from 1970 to 2000.

I’ll use the cover art embed so you can put the face to the voice. If the embed doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

By the way, Cortright also posted a rebuttal to the NYT Magazine piece on Portland.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Paris When It Drizzles

Paris continues its run as the city people most love to shoot time lapses of. Here’s one called “Paris When It Drizzles” by Hal Bergman. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

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Cities: Paris
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Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Diverging Fortunes

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a story on Portland that featured Yours Truly. I recapitulated a few observations I’ve had over the years, including that it’s truly remarkable how a small city like Portland has captured so many people’s imagination, and also that “people move to Portland to move to Portland.”

A Portland writer named Steve Duin appears to have had an aneurysm over the piece and, among other things, criticized my statement about why people move to Portland, saying:

She quotes Aaron Renn, an urban-affairs analyst, who insists that while Los Angeles attracts starlets and New York the financiers, “People move to Portland to move to Portland,” as if the city is a space between Pacific Avenue and Park Place on the Monopoly board, not a vibrant, creative, accessible and accommodating urban scene.

Which only proves that he completely missed the point. All I’m saying is what he’s saying in different words, namely that people move to Portland for its lifestyle and amenities. This is exactly what every Portland booster claims, namely that what they’ve created is attractional. I’m simply pointing out the obvious: people move to Portland primarily for lifestyle and leisure, not career or economic reasons. People move to Portland because they want to live there.

Portland’s economy has actually picked up of late. Its unemployment fell below the national average in 2013 after having been above it for 14 straight years. But I want to highlight a disconnect between a couple measures of economic performance.

I’ve written many times that Portland has done very well in terms of per capita GDP. In fact, from 2001 to 2013 (the maximum range of data available from the feds), Portland was #1 out of all 52 large metros in the US in its percentage increase in real per capita GDP.

On the other hand, looking at how much of that economic value ends up in people’s pockets tells a different story. From 2001 to 2012 (I don’t think 2013 has been released yet), Portland only ranked 40th out of 52 in its percentage increase on this metric. Portland declined from a per capita income of 104.9% of the US average in 2001 to 98.6% in 2012.

I threw this divergence into a quick chart:

portland-gdp-vs-persinc

It would be interesting to dig into these numbers. I would particularly be interested in seeing where the GDP growth is coming from, as unlike say San Jose, there’s no obvious driver I see.

Update 9/23/14: I did a quick back of the envelop calculation of total GDP growth by industry. Only a few industry totals are available, but the biggest gainer was Manufacturing, up 300%. Education, Health, and Social Assistance were #2, followed by Professional and Business Services. Natural Resources, Retail. Information, and FIRE were at the bottom.

Speaking of San Jose, I see an even more remarkable divergence there. It was #2 in per capita GDP growth over the 2001-2013 time frame. Looking at the overall Bay Area total real GDP, it increased by 30.1% from 2001 to 2013. Keep in mind I’m using the inflation adjusted figured here, so there’s no inflation in that metric. But at the same time the Bay Area lost 2.4% of its jobs.

The Bay Area grew its economy by almost a third while shedding over 75,000 jobs. Pretty remarkable.

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Indiana Toll Road Lease Vindicated As Win For Hoosiers As Private Operator Goes Bankrupt

The genius of the Indiana Toll Road lease is now on display again as its private operator is declaring bankruptcy. Mitch Daniels once said that it was “the best deal since Manhattan was sold for beads – only this time the natives won.” We now have the proof on display.

I continue to be mystified that people can still claim this was a bad deal for the state (see former Indiana House Minority Leader Pat Bauer and this Shaw Friedman guy). Hello? If the operator is going bankrupt, it’s because they overpaid. The revenue projections they made were so inflated that the tolls couldn’t even cover the debt service. That means Indiana got way, way more than the road was actually worth.

It may well be that you can have various objections to the deal. Maybe the state should have better anticipated some compensation events. Maybe you don’t like some of the projects the proceeds were spent on (there are a few I think are dubious). But just because the deal might fall short of some theoretically perfect ideal that nothing ever achieves doesn’t mean it wasn’t a massive win for the state overall – especially financially.

Those who claim that the state could have better monetized the highway itself beyond stretch credulity. After all, the state never made a material profit on the highway in the 50 years it owned it and it had badly deteriorated in many places. To think that state would have been able to generate more than the private concessionaire paid ($3.9 billion in cash and upgrades) with a revenue stream that has proven manifestly inadequate to even keep the private firm afloat is, shall we say, a bridge too far. (You might be able to try a Laffer Curve type argument, but I’ve never heard anyone actually make it. And if cutting tolls would have optimized revenues, you can believe the private operator would have tried it).

Daniels did once say that the state would retake responsibility for the road back if the vendor declared bankruptcy. He clearly misspoke on that. The state won’t get the road back until the lease expires (though still has and never did lose ownership). But if the bankrupt or restructured entity defaults on its obligations under the lease, the state very much can take it back. So the state is protected. Who care’s who the operating entity is as long as it’s delivering on the contract?

I don’t think that government should try to sign “gotcha” deals with private parties that sends them into bankruptcy. Ideally such deals would be win-win. But given how many terrible deals have been signed with cronies and such out there, it’s good to see one where the public gets a clear win. Cintra and Macquarie are big boys who surely already protected themselves (and have a large portfolio which likely includes some big winners for them). Though a new operator may try, and they’d be crazy not to, there’s no reason for the state to renegotiate on this one.

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