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Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Hoping Detroit Fails by Jim Russell

The backlash has begun. SmartPlanet links to a Mother Jones piece that rips the Chrysler ad I discussed yesterday. The critique has become, in my view, a vacuous cliché:

But there’s a lot to dislike here: the fact that a major bailout recipient is dishing beaucoup bucks for a one-off ad to boost its image; the cynical racism (or at least colonialism) of positioning Chrysler as a tough, gritty, 8 Mile-style brand that’s perfect for what marketers call the “urban core” demographic; and using Detroit poverty porn to hawk your product while simultaneously trying to deride the media’s recent Detroit poverty porn.

The charge of exploiting “poverty porn” is reminiscent of the scathing rebuke of the Levi’s campaign that sells jeans using Braddock’s ruin porn. That’s an important connection to make. The Associated Press offers a watered-down version of the concern:

“Detroit’s ascendancy mirrors Eminem’s own struggles and accomplishments,” Chrysler brand CEO and President Olivier Francois said in an e-mail to the AP. “This is not simply yet another celebrity in a TV spot. It has meaning. Like his music and story, the new Chrysler is ‘Imported from Detroit’ with pride.”

Of course, the tagline is not without some irony: Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA now owns 25 percent of Chrysler, and the ad was produced by Wieden + Kennedy, a Portland, Ore.-based agency known for its work with Nike. Chrysler switched after its previous advertising agency, a famous firm called BBDO, closed its Detroit office.

Does Wieden + Kennedy ring a bell? Mother Jones went after the Nike connection. I immediately thought of the “Ready to Work” campaign that featured Braddock. In fact, the Chrysler ad seems similar in its use of Rust Belt Chic. The agency is located in Portland, OR and has its finger on the pulse of the urban frontier. The swipe at the emerald cities in the definition of Detroit cool is ironic.

The other thread running through the negative reaction to the Chrysler ad is Fiat’s ownership stake and the US government bailout of the American auto company. Why are taxpayers propping up a foreign company?

The [Nike] shoe waiting to drop is Chrysler abandoning Detroit for Turin, Italy. We bail you out and then you spit in our face, raking in corporate profits. Detroit is left with only a sleek ad, 15-minutes of fame.

But hold on a second:

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler, has been forced on the defensive after causing a political firestorm in Italy by suggesting he could move the Italian company’s headquarters from Turin to the US and saying Chrysler’s bail-out loans from the US government carried “shyster rates”.

His comments come just a month after he won tough labour concessions at Fiat’s flagship Turin plant on a pledge that he would not move production to cheaper sites in North America or eastern Europe.

Fiat is a symbol of Italy’s industrial might, and business leaders say any decision by Mr Marchionne to reduce its presence there would have a disastrous effect on the country’s already weak image as a place for foreign investment. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the opposition Democratic party, demanding an explanation from Mr Marchionne said it was unacceptable for “Turin and the country to become a suburb of Detroit”.

The above is from yesterday’s news cycle. After all is said and done, Turin might be the city left high-and-dry. Detroit will be the one stealing jobs from abroad. Of all the pontificating (good and bad) about the Super Bowl spot, not a single blog post or article mentions the shitstorm rising from Marchionne’s comments. There is no consideration of the bigger picture.

Which brings me back to Detroit and the huge task that city faces to revitalize:

“When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined,” Bing said. “Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity.”

Twenty-one months into the job, that’s where the city remains. With no salvation in sight, Bing, 67, has embarked on a mission few in his position have ever had to take on: dramatically shrinking a major American metropolis. To do so, Bing has issued an open invitation: anyone with a proposal, plan, theory – a notion, even – is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.

The people trying to save the city tended to respond positively to the Chrysler ad. Maybe poverty porn sells a few cars. But it can also rally many to the cause. The Mother Jones invective is what is postcolonial, exploitative. I’m from the Rust Belt. Don’t tell me what the score is. I’m not being seduced by ruin porn and I’m not buying your lefty propaganda.

A crumbling Detroit is supposed to teach us how capitalism is evil. Those wielding Marxist theory want Detroit to fail. It is supposed to fail. The idea that nothing good can come from the promotion of consumerism is oppressive ideological thinking. I’m not interested in Mother Jones telling me what the ad means. I can decide for myself. I can be inspired and still point a damning finger at Chrysler. Doing so doesn’t make me a hypocrite. It means I’m an active consumer of media. That cuts both ways as far as Mother Jones is concerned.

This post originally appeared in Burgh Diaspora.

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Jim Russell: Catch a Rising Star – Pittsburgh

[ It's no secret I'm a fan of Jim Russell, who is doing simply the most compelling writing out there on the geography of talent on his blog Burgh Diaspora. He's also the best at stating the case for why Pittsburgh is positioned to shine in coming years. If you want to know why the Pittsburgh story is real, read Jim's blog. He graciously agreed to share a bit of the case for Pittsburgh today, focusing on its reputation as a demographic disaster zone - Aaron. ]

Prima facie, Pittsburgh is the picture of demographic dysfunction. Both the metro area and the city are perennial population losers. The core county of Allegheny is home to some of the highest concentrations of elderly people in the entire United States. As for domestic in-migration and immigration to the region, calling it anemic might be too generous. Shrinking cities scholars Justin B. Hollander, Karina Pallagst, Terry Schwarz, and Frank J. Popper sum up the Steel City, “Demographically, Pittsburgh consistently ranks as one of the worst performing U.S. cities in terms of poverty, crime, employment, income, and housing abandonment.”

This sad story is the basis of what the above authors term the “Pittsburgh paradox”. Why are cities across the country trying to figure out how to copy such a miserable place? Pittsburgh is legendary in urban planning circles. But don’t take my word for it:

Paul Farmer’s reputation as a visionary planner is what first caused Minneapolis officials to seek out and court him in 1994. Farmer had already served 14 years as deputy planning director in Pittsburgh when he accepted the Minneapolis post. He’d worked as a planning consultant in Canada, India, and Germany. He’d taught urban planning at several universities. In Pittsburgh, Farmer led the charge to redevelop 35 miles of waterfront, install busways and a light-rail transit system, and transform contaminated land into parks, businesses, and residential neighborhoods–all projects that city leaders have long been anxious to see happen in Minneapolis. …

… When you came to Minneapolis, it was clear why the city wanted you working here. Projects you steered in Pittsburgh–light-rail transit, the riverfront, downtown improvement–have had city councils across the country drooling.

Minneapolis wanted to be the next Pittsburgh. Given the lousy data associated with this Rust Belt backwater, all the interest in the economic redevelopment going on there is curious. Pulling a Pittsburgh would appear to be a bad idea.

Downtown revitalization is one thing, but stimulating a regional economy is quite another. Did Farmer’s efforts really spark a renaissance? The jury is still out on that question. But during the depths of the current economic downturn, Las Vegas looked at Pittsburgh as a model of a way forward. A reporter from the Las Vegas Sun called me, inquiring about the positive changes in my favorite city. What might Pittsburgh teach devastated Las Vegas?

I’m under the impression that most people don’t believe the good press that Pittsburgh receives. But I also think that few appreciate how far Pittsburgh has come, particular when one considers the lack of inmigration and immigration that has favored so many other cities, such as Las Vegas. The city has done much more than “redd up”. As I see it, the transformation of the regional workforce is more worthy of celebration. Pittsburgh is a demographic dynamo.

If you are familiar with my blog (Burgh Diaspora), then you know I’m fond of linking to this post from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago titled, “Growth and Great Lakes Cities”. As you might expect, Pittsburgh sports poor job creation over the last 40-years. Weighing per capita income, Pittsburgh is a hands-down winner. Words from the Fed:

The two local leaders in 1970 college attainment, Columbus, Ohio, and the Twin Cities also experienced the fastest employment growth. While Pittsburgh ranked low in college attainment in 1970, its gains in this metric since then have been the most rapid. Perhaps not accidentally, Pittsburgh’s growth in per capita income also outpaced other cities in the region.

Concerning the 1970 baseline, we would expect Columbus and the Twin Cities to do well over the next four decades. Smart cities tend to get smarter. Pittsburgh bucks the trend, unique among large metros (and not just Rust Belt cities). The result is some of the highest concentrations of college educated young adults in the entire country. (here and here) As the Boomers leave the workforce, Pittsburgh will emerge on par with Boston, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington, DC In terms of the availability of talent.

The strong performance numbers have been there all along, for anyone who cared to look past the shrinking city title. The fallacy is that population growth indicates economic growth. This is industrial era thinking. New metrics track educational attainment and the migration of the college educated. Pittsburgh does very well on both counts.

Then why aren’t people moving to Pittsburgh? As detailed above, Pittsburgh prosperity isn’t tied to attracting new residents. During the most recent recession, that has proved to be a point of economic resiliency. Thus, there is interest from boomtowns such as Las Vegas in learning how Pittsburgh did it. Improving the urban core didn’t bring back the people who left in the early 1980s. Nor did the title of “America’s Most Livable City” do anything to entice outsiders to relocate there. The declining population said all that needed to be said. No one, from there or elsewhere, wants to live in Shittsburgh.

As Aaron Renn himself has noted, all of that is beginning to change. More impressive to me is the improving jobs picture. I’ll bring your attention to two graphs from Chris Briem (Null Space), “Pittsburgh MSA Labor Force, 1970-present” and “Difference Between US and Pittsburgh MSA Unemployment Rates: 1970-Present“. The recession of the early 1980s was a demographic disaster for the Pittsburgh region. Relatively speaking, the most recent recession is the best of times. The progress over that 25-year time period is astounding, the reversal of fortune jaw-dropping. That change will get the attention of other cities. That’s what all the fuss is about, not the gloom and doom stereotype that has dogged Pittsburgh for the better part of half a century.

Pittsburgh is accelerating into the Great Reset like no other city in the Great Lakes megaregion. It’s a strong performer hiding in the Rust Belt, the manufacturing legacy still the dominant image. The usual numbers remain unimpressive, for now. The real story is lurking just beneath the surface. Pittsburgh, a former world class city, is a rising star.

Jim Russell is a talent economic geographer whose mission is to help shrinking communities benefit from outmigration. He can be reached at E-mail: jimrussell@globalburgh.com

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

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