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Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

A Cleveland Anthem

I heard a while back that Cleveland’s new marketing slogan was going to be “This Is Cleveland.” I was not exactly inspired by this (“Hello, Cleveland!”?). But Matt Wootton sent me this first video in the campaign, and I’d have to say it’s a step in the right direction.

What’s more, remember last week how I mentioned that Richey Piiparinen had been put in charge of a research group at Cleveland State to develop his talent strategy? This is another big example of official Cleveland signing on to the Rust Belt Chic program. This is in effect the branding team translating this 2012 Rust Wire post by Richey into a video. Take a look.

Update 3/31/14: Well, I guess a step forward was still a step too far. The original video has already been yanked and replaced with the one below that seems at my watch and that of commenter John Morris to be tweaked back towards the “ordinary” side of the spectrum. Still an advance, just less far than before. I guess that shows how far Cleveland has to go.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

It’s not perfect. There’s too many standard issue “me too” items. Not that I think they are bad or inappropriate, just a bit jarring when the video itself proclaims that “we never followed their rules” and that in Cleveland “we made our own.” I saw some rules being followed in there. But apart from the tag line dissonance, I thought the mix was actually good and this represents progress on the marketing front for Cleveland. It will be interesting to see how far Cleveland is willing to take this new direction.

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Saving East Cleveland

Rust Wire pointed me at this video from mid-2012 called “Saving East Cleveland” that was created by residents of that community. Angie Schmitt was struck by the lack of outward blame residents have, and so was I. Before getting to the film, a few of my observations and takeaways.

First, as noted there is a singular lack of blaming of outside forces for the decline of East Cleveland. While Angie highlights the sprawl narrative, I think there’s a more important element at play: race. Clearly race relations played a huge role in how East Cleveland ended up in its current condition. Yet this video shows a remarkable lack of animus about that, even where it might be legitimate. I found this a profound rebuke of those who stereotype black America as walking around looking to play the race card.

I see the attitude and approach of the people in the video as grounded in a clear-eyed, realistic understanding of the fact that no one is coming to save East Cleveland (a separate municipality, not the east side of Cleveland). Though it appears to be not that far from the university, medical and cultural district of Cleveland, this isn’t a place that seems likely to attract the attention of local billionaires or regional bigwigs or state government. All those actors are focused on saving Cleveland itself, and as is commonly the case, only select districts of that. If there are any solutions for East Cleveland, they are going to have to come from inside the city.

There’s a standard Rust Belt narrative of loss. But what we see here, unlike with white flight suburbanites, is a keen sense of the loss of social capital as embodied by their grandparents’ generation and the values it held. They understand the pernicious effect this loss of social capital has had on their community. (Incidentally, we witnessing the exact same dynamic of loss playing out in many parts of white America today – I even see it in my own family).

What then is left to start turning around East Cleveland? Only one thing: self-improvement. I see the film maker as trying to recreate that lost social capital by calling people to accept responsibility for their lives and their community. The lists of accomplishments recited before the interviewees says it clearly: these are successful role models from East Cleveland. It is possible conduct yourself well and succeed as a man or woman here. This is what we need to be as a community. Step it up.

In a sense, while a tougher road, neighborhood improvement through internal development may be more beneficial for the residents. How is neighborhood “improvement” generally implemented in America today? By substituting new residents for the old (gentrification). This might improve real estate values, but I’m not sure it improves the lives of those who originally lived in the area, unless they managed to reap windfall real estate gains.

Instead of gentrifying the neighborhood, the film maker says we should in effect gentrify the people. This is evident in how they view as successes – not traitors – those from East Cleveland who made it in life but ended up leaving.

This documentary is 40 minutes so you may want to watch it on TV. Unlike the typical film of Detroit or wherever filmed by (often out of town) upscale whites, this is a film by and for the black residents of East Cleveland. Definitely worth a watch. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Pete Saunders also posted a take on it.

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

In-State vs. Out-of-State Migration

My recent repost of an article on Columbus, Ohio’s brand blew away the all time comment record for this blog, with 271 as of this writing.

One the discussions was around the extent to which Columbus and other Ohio cities draw mostly from the state or from a broader area. Obviously with Ohio State University, Columbus has a massive in-state draw. But what about people from out of state?

To try quantify this, I used the IRS migration data in my Telestrian system to sort out net migration into that which is with the state of Ohio, and that which is with other states. Before the data, a couple caveats. First, this is based on tax return data so probably understates student movements as many (most?) undergrads aren’t filing their own returns. Second, for multi-state metros like Cincinnati, someone moving from Ohio to the Kentucky or Indiana part of the metro area still counts in the total. The metro area is considered a unit. Also, movements within the metro area are ignored. With that, here’s the chart (click to enlarge):

As expected, Columbus has a huge in-state draw. But what surprised me is that Columbus actually has negative migration with the rest of the country. In effect, Columbus gains people from Ohio and exports them to the rest of the country. I’m sure the university has something to do with this, but it’s interesting nevertheless. Cincinnati shows the same pattern, only at a smaller scale. And Cleveland is bleeding people both to Ohio and the rest of the country. Keep in mind with Cleveland that a lot of the in-state outmigration is probably in effect suburban because of the nature of the way Northeast Ohio metros are set up.

To put this in perspective, I ran the same analysis for various other similar sized metros:

This was a shocker to me. Look at Nashville and Charlotte. It’s not so much that they have large net migration from out of state, but that they have very low net migration from inside. Though Nashville is the boomtown of Tennessee, it seems not to be sucking in people from the rest of the state.

Portland is also an interesting case. It appears to be like Nashville and Charlotte, but what this doesn’t show is that overwhelmingly the net migration to Portland is coming from California – 53,000 people worth. If you exclude both Oregon and California, Portland only drew a net of 21,000 people from the rest of the country. Contrary to what you might think, vast quantities of people (on a net basis) are not streaming into Portland from all over the country. It’s a regional draw.

Austin parallels Columbus a bit in that it has a huge in-state draw, possibly again because of the university. It also as a huge migration with California – 30,000 people. If you look at Texas plus California, that’s about half the total. Charlotte has a similar effect with New York and New Jersey migration.

Indianapolis is sort of a control with Columbus. It is primarily an in-state draw but does have a positive balance with the rest of the country. Keep in mind that it will inevitably lose some people to Sunbelt states for retirement. There’s not much you can do about that. But it’s an effect say North Carolina may have less of. The contrast with Columbus in out of state migration could be due to the lack of a major school there. I don’t know for sure.

Looking more closely at the 3C’s, here is their net migration with each other:

And here is the gross migration, which is the total number of people moving back and forth:

And here’s the percentage of metro area population that is living in the state they were born in:

There’s no radical difference. In fact, by my eyeball calculation, the difference between Columbus and Cleveland is almost entirely due to the former’s higher percentage of foreign born residents (again, partially an artifact of OSU). In their domestic population they are similar. Cincinnati is in the corner of the state and a three state metro. It’s easy to see that its born in state of residence figure is lower because of people who crossed a state line while not leaving the region, though I can’t quantify the exact figures.

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Moving from Balkanized to Globalized in Cleveland

“Cleveland didn’t decline because industry left. Cleveland didn’t decline because people left. Vacant houses are not Cleveland’s cross to bear. Cleveland’s ultimate problem is that it is cut off from the global flow of people and ideas. Cleveland needs to be more tapped into the world.”

“It is important to note how this ‘[population] churn’ helps cities. Knowledge-based economies run on the quality of ideas. Ideas are not only a function of intelligence or education, but also the depth of information a person, or a city, receives. Historically, a lack of information – via a lack of demographic inflow – has ‘Balkanized’ social networks in Rust Belt cities. This has led to a culture of parochialism, which has hurt economic development.” – From the report “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland”

Jim Russell and Richey Piiparinen have released a new whitepaper on Cleveland that should be read by anyone looking to reboot the economies of struggling post-industrial cities. Released under the auspices of Ohio City, Inc., “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland: A Theory of Change For Legacy Cities” looks at how a lack of population churn has stunted Cleveland’s ability to connect to the global economy.

This paper puts a different spin on talent and the knowledge economy. “Knowledge” is not just facts acquired through education or work experience. It also includes the set of personal relationships and knowledge of other places and social networks that we all carry to some extent. Global cities not only score well on traditional knowledge measures, but because they are destinations for migrants, they excel in this more broader notion as well.

Cleveland is not a global city. In fact, in his book Caught in the Middle, Richard Longworth said, “When I went to Cleveland I found not alarm but complacency. In a city that is being destroyed by global forces…I found almost nobody willing to actually talk about globalization or global challenges…In all my travels through the Midwest, Cleveland was the only place, big or small, that seemed heedless of the global challenge.”

Part of that comes from a lack of migrants coming in to bring global knowledge and connectivity to global networks. Using IRS data from Telestrian, Russell and Piiparinen note that Cleveland actually only ranks 34th in America in its outflow of people, versus being the 28th largest metropolitan area. The city is actually doing a better than average job of retention.

The problem is that Cleveland ranks 47th in inflow of people. Attraction is very weak. Hence population decline, but also an inbred, closed society. About 75% of the people in metro Cleveland were born in Ohio, versus 30-60% in other, more globalized cities. Among large metros in the US, Cleveland ranks 6th in its percentage of the population living in the state they were born. (In fairness, this in part derives from a low foreign born percentage and the fact that the Cleveland region isn’t a multi-state metro).

I did my own analysis to take a look at the in-migration shed of the city. Cuyahoga County (the central county of the Cleveland region) had reported in-migration from 320 counties during the 2000s, with 228 of these sending at least 100 people to Cleveland. I decided to contrast with better preforming Columbus. There, the core county of Franklin drew people from 486 counties, with 335 of them having at least 100 people. Now Columbus is a huge university town, so I also looked at Indianapolis. Indy’s central county of Marion, which is significantly smaller than Cuyahoga in population, drew from 381 counties, including 273 of 100 or more people.

Clearly Cleveland is drawing fewer people from the outside world, and drawing from fewer places, than cities that are performing better, though one could quibble with the causality arrow here.

As a result, we see what is frequently true in such places. Cleveland’s social and power networks have balkinized. They don’t receive much new information or many new people, and what they do receive they don’t integrate well. Hence what Longworth observed. Cleveland needs much more demographic churn to open up these social networks and generate more global connectivity.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s evidence this is already happening. The authors note that several central city areas have attracted newcomers from both inside and outside of the region – and these are disproportionately young. My own analysis showed that Cleveland had surprisingly strong downtown population growth of 4,200 people, one of the best showings in the Midwest.

The authors also note other potentially encouraging trends. A good number of Cleveland’s gentrifying neighborhoods are also becoming more not less diverse. While all they note diversity doesn’t mean people automatically start interacting with each other, it’s a start. What’s more, they suggest that the decline in social capital that results in diverse neighborhoods might paradoxically be a plus, as Cleveland suffers from excess social capital today. Lastly, they note that Cleveland has pretty high churn already with both New York and Chicago, making it one of the few similar types of cities that already has well-established migration paths. They believe this is poised to continue as high costs and “cool fatigue” push people out of many of today’s key global hubs like New York.

The potential for Cleveland in capturing this is significant in their view. As the paper notes, “This scenario, then, that’s unfolding in which coastal talent is arriving, or re-arriving, into the legacy city landscape can foretell an economic sea change…The long-term economic potential for this talent migration rests not in how many microbrews are consumed or condos are leased, but rather how it affects Cleveland’s global interconnectivity. These migrations are re-arranging Cleveland’s historical insular social networks, with the gentrifying neighborhoods acting as urban portals to the global flow of information.”

This was not intended as a critique of microbreweries. Rather, the idea is that luring people is about way more than just boosting the consuming classes, it’s about tangible change in the social and economic structure of the community.

No one should pretend that positive indicators like strong downtown population growth means Cleveland’s problems are solved. I’d describe this more as “green shoots” than anything. But it’s undeniably positive and provides a platform for further growth.

The authors don’t suggest any particular policies in response to their findings. They were more interested in moving beyond the traditional “brain drain” frame of talent and inject both some key facts around Cleveland’s migration patterns and their talent churn theory of civic change into the local discourse. They got a nice writeup in the Plain Dealer, so they are off to a good start there. But more work will need to be done in the future on an effective policy response.

Clearly I find a lot compelling in this. I’d encourage you to read the white paper. You may also be interested in my previous post “‘James Drain’ Hit Cleveland” for some similar thoughts.

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A Culture of Corruption by Angie Schmitt

[ Angie Schmitt lives in Cleveland and runs Rust Wire and also writes for Streetsblog. She's a great commenter on cities and definitely not afraid to take on the big issues and powers that be, as this piece shows - Aaron. ]

When I was about 24, I moved to Youngstown, Ohio to take a job as a newspaper reporter. It was, I now realize, a crazy thing to do.

I didn’t plan to stay in the city long. But my dad was pretty upset when I told him about it. His company had an experience there in the ’90s where one of the construction foremen was run off the road by someone who was upset about something–I’m guessing they had problems with a local labor union. After that, his company wouldn’t do business there anymore.

I had heard about the mafia in Youngstown, but they had sort of been flushed out by the Feds. Anyway, I thought that stuff would be interesting, reporting-wise. But my dad said something that I only know understand the wisdom of: corruption like that, he said, long-term corruption, becomes a part of the local culture.

I think about that a lot now that I live in Cleveland, a city with a similar history–and only about an hour away.

In the four years since I’ve been here, the FBI has been conducting a major corruption investigation and many of the local officials have been caught up in it. As a result, there was a big “county reform” effort and the bums–at least the most obvious two–were thrown out. Then they held an election to name new leaders and Cuyahoga County residents reelected a lot of old-time politicians to the newly vacated offices. Disappointing, yes. But, also, telling.


This high-school-educated former janitor was the unquestioned political leader of Ohio's largest county for decades, a position he used to enrich himself.

None of these old-time folks had been caught pants-down in a corruption case. But they were all part of the same milieu; everyone who held a power position must have had to deal with these guys. One notable exception is the county executive, who has been a breath of fresh air.

Some City Council members and high ranking city officials had been mentioned during the course of the investigation, most notably City Council President Martin Sweeney, a career Cleveland politician. He continues to serve in that position–the second most powerful one in the city. Just today it was revealed in The Plain Dealer that in one of the ongoing corruption trials, Sweeney’s name came up as part of some contract fixing scheme, possibly tied to free improvements done to his home and campaign donations.

And meanwhile, yesterday, Cleveland City Council did something I found to be especially significant–and depressing. One of the Councilmembers, Ken Johnson, wanted to retire and then immediately be reappointed to his job so he could collect a public pension and a salary at the same time, something we in Ohio call “double-dipping,” which is technically legal but widely viewed as an abuse of the system. And what did City Council do? They reappointed Ken Johnson so he could double-dip–even with the The Plain Dealer staring them down, publishing a page-one story.

And you know why they did it? City Council doesn’t care what people think about them. It doesn’t matter. Constituents don’t hold the power in Cleveland, with politicians answering to them for their actions. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m fairly certain these politicians don’t expect their constituents to even question them.

That is how power operates in Cleveland. First you must become part of the club. How do you do this? Not smarts, not merit–it’s loyalty. Loyalty, or, “connections” or “relationships,” reign supreme in Cleveland. It’s the culture of corruption, because if you’re breaking the law (or doing something otherwise dubious or morally questionable, abusing your position of authority) the number one priority is surrounding yourself with people who will keep their yaps shut.

And that’s exactly what everyone in greater Cleveland did for decades. There were a scant few whistle blowers who lost everything, only to be vindicated decades later. But nearly everyone was in on what was happening.

Something that really struck me was a lengthy article the The Plain Dealer ran about why they themselves didn’t expose the local corruption ring that was our regional government. The former editor pushed for the story before she left.

They interviewed reporter after reporter, and they all said they knew it was going on but offered, in my opinion, extremely inadequate reasons for not uncovering it.

Here is one reporter on trying to expose the County Sheriff, who was eventually ousted:

I knew he was probably playing fast and loose . . . but I think my mind was that that’s the way the system was. I don’t remember anyone fainting with shock when they found out that the sheriff was taking kickbacks.

I think the reason the The Plain Dealer didn’t uncover corruption is because it was so widespread and pervasive it was hard to tell where the corruption began and ended.

The central premise of David Hugill’s critical media theory book Missing Women, Missing News is that the mainstream media, exemplified by major newspapers, are inherently conservative because their default presumption is the legitimacy of public institutions. Expecting The Plain Dealer to properly cover the story of Cleveland’s corruption would have required a radical rethinking of the legitimacy of our public institutions. So, they couldn’t.

Anyway, all of that doesn’t go away overnight after a few FBI arrests, although I think Cleveland (especially its leadership and civic boosters) likes to imagine that it does. Corruption, in the sense of a degraded, rotten foundation, is a well chosen term for what’s occurred, because the cheating and dishonesty we see from our leaders, the blatant public theft, has a corrosive effect on a community. You take a look at a place like East Cleveland or Buckeye and ask yourself, would such profound wreckage have been possible without corruption, without someone with power choosing to exploit the community? I think the answer is no.

The story of Cleveland’s decline is much bigger than deindustrialization, even though I think that’s what we’re most comfortable attributing it to.

I saw a study about national corruption a while ago and it found that nations with higher levels of corruption had greater levels of infant mortality and greater high school drop-out rates. This would certainly apply locally. The money these guys stole to remodel their tacky homes in Parma Heights or wherever was literally food out of babes’ mouths in one of the poorest major cities in the United States.

It’s bigger than that even. It seeps into every aspect of life, I think, this culture of corruption. I think it erodes the freedom associated with creativity, as exemplified in the 2006 German film The Lives of Others. As much as Cleveland touts its performing and visual arts, I think the local art scene is strangely stifled. We have a great orchestra and some great theaters, but no street art scene, no art element with a revolutionary bent.

Cleveland is a place that’s very deferential to authority. I heard a theory once that industrial cities are like that because of the historically hierarchical structures of the manufacturing industry. But I think it’s more sinister than that here. I feel it constraining me sometimes, and it makes me very depressed. It makes me want to move away from Cleveland. This very blog, which is at times critical of leadership in Cleveland, provokes such reactions from Clevelanders who are wary of criticizing authority that you’d think I was drowning puppies.

One time someone told me, in all seriousness, that having strong opinions was not accepted in the local culture here, that it was considered “arrogant” to have strong opinions about anything. I think he was actually trying to help me; he was trying to give me advice. But it just made me feel worse about this place. A city where it’s not okay to have strong opinions is not a good place for creative people: it is a good place for sheep. It is a good place for morons. People with respect for their own thoughts won’t choose to live in a place like that, and given the choice again, I probably wouldn’t.

People should be able to freely express opinions in a public blog about civic issues without fearing retaliation. I think people in other cities take that for granted. I saw this kind of thing happen recently to my friend Phil Kidd in Youngstown. Phil runs a popular blog and a store in Youngstown and is a well-liked and well-known activist. Last week he made an offhand comment on his Facebook page about past corruption in the city with respect to the upcoming mayoral race. Soon, one of the county commissioners was virtually shouting him down on Facebook, saying he needs to be careful what he says on Facebook.

I also think in Cleveland we continue to have a society that doles out rewards fairly arbitrarily, rather than based on merit–and what is corruption, basically, if not that? I think this culture of “loyalty,” or “relationship building” establishes a perverse set of incentives for people that live here. It doesn’t encourage people to excel in specific fields or realms. It rewards only friendly relationships with powerful individuals. As a result, I think in Cleveland we hold up some very mediocre stuff produced by well-connected people as a very lousy ideal for others to aim for.

For example, why is it that this blog should be referenced and praised by Salon, The Atlantic, the Indianapolis Star, the Las Vegas Sun, Governing Magazine, and Details, but we’ve never received any sort of formal mention by our local press? Is it that our local media is more discerning than those national publications? I don’t think so; I’ve seen them feature centerfolds of bloggers who write about going out to local bars and how much they love Cleveland.

That is very discouraging if you are really striving to excel in a particular realm. And those individual ambitions, nurturing them, that is the very foundation of a healthy society. The smartest and the most ambitious, they will chafe in that environment. They will realize that they can’t succeed, and they will leave — as I am quite certain the last generation of honest political talent did — leaving a gaping hole.

The culture in Cleveland doesn’t lift people up: it grinds honest, hardworking people down. That was perhaps Jimmy Dimora’s and Frank Russo’s most serious crime. And that is the problem with Cleveland. New York inspires. Chicago is a mecca of Midwestern ambition. But no one comes to Cleveland to realize their dreams because of the fantastic opportunities available to anyone who’s ambitious or hard working or smart enough.

If we can solve that problem, we’ll have solved them all. I’m not sure how to do that, but I think shining a light on it is an important first step. We need to be brave and stand up to the corrupt elements of our society to make it better, even if that requires making great personal sacrifices. The people who do that, though, just end up being marginalized here. I think it’s a shame.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on January 9, 2013.

Related:
Chicago: The Cost of Clout
If You Don’t Understand Urban Political Theory, You Probably Don’t Understand Land Use

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

“Livability” vs. Livability: The Pitfalls of Willy Wonka Urbanism by Richey Piiparinen

livability: (livable) fit or suitable to live in or with; “livable conditions”.

“Livability” has been a buzz word in city development for some time, and for good reason, as who doesn’t want livability, outside the zombie cohort? Things get hairy, though, when “livability”—as an economic development strategy—gets unpacked, because questions arise: “Livability” for whom? “Livability” at what cost?

Making a city “livable” these days largely means appealing to a select group of folks so as to form “an attractive economic place”. This notion of “livability” really came on in the late 1980’s, and was done under the presumption that certain cities offered higher quality of life, read: better lifestyles. For instance, in 1989 geographer David Harvey wrote that cities need to “keep ahead of the game [by] engendering leap-frogging innovations in life-styles, cultural forms, products, and service mixes…if they are to survive.” This was a radical departure from previous societal efforts to make quality of life a priority (think: pollution remediation) in that “life” was swapped out for “lifestyle”.

You could argue, then, that the original sin of “livability”-driven economic development begins right there. Namely, the emphasis will not be on the people of a city, but on potential consumers, particularly high-valued consumers with means, subsequently referred to as the “creative class”. As for creative class wants? They are, according to Richard Florida, “[an] indigenous street-level culture – a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros…” In this sense, the idea of “livability” gets precariously slimmed out.

Nonetheless, this thinking has penetrated mainstream economic development, with cities attempting to one-up each other in their want to attract a slice of the “livability” electorate. The consequences have become predictable: more comfort for some, less comfort for most.

***

Perhaps the city most famous for livability-driven economic development is Portland. It is America’s amenity apex, and a recent study showed it attracts the young by the boatload due to a certain leisure-lifestyle it affords.

For example, from a recent article entitled “(P)retirement’s new frontier”, the author interviews a 36-year old who is “underemployed on purpose”, as well as a couple who quit their jobs in Austin, sold their car, and have backyard chickens, yet now feel “much richer”. Such folks are referred to by economist Joe Cortright as “lifestyle entrepreneurs”. Part of this entrepreneurial output, touched on in the article, is a website called Badass that rates Portland neighborhoods for amenities like pinball machines, food carts, and access to bike lanes. At times the article reads like Portland was dreamed up by Willy Wonka.

Here, I half kid. From a description of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, notice the parallel themes: the Peter Pan motif, an escape from an unsatisfactory reality, and the promise of limitless sensory and savory experiences:

The Chocolate Room is designed to look like an outdoor landscape complete with trees, flowers and a waterfall, but Wonka has made the entire scene out of candy and chocolate. Charlie and the other children see some doll-sized human beings in the Chocolate Room, and Wonka explains they are Oompa-Loompas whom he saved from the dangerous country of Loompaland. The Oompa-Loompas agreed to work for Wonka and live in his factory in exchange for a safe home and an endless supply of their favorite food, cacao beans.

Courtesy of Knotworkshop

Swap out the over-educated and underemployed for the Oompa-Loompas, chocolate for lifestyle amenities, and the Chocolate Room for the concept of “Portland-as-place”, and you got yourself a sequel. But there are problems with such city building: it’s too often defined by the ephemera, or that “transitory matter not intended to be retained or preserved”. And while the ephemera aren’t building blocks to economic growth—but instead represent America’s tendency to fix hard structural deficits with the airy promises of the pleasure principle—they are nonetheless a main cog in the modern day city-making machine. From an article entitled “Placemaking Revolution: the powerful role of ephemera and the arts in our cities”:

Coletta addressed the question of how ephemeral events can have lasting impacts in cities. “I think you can do temporality with regularity. Some temporary events are so powerful that they stay in the memory for a long time, and spark the imagination.

But I would argue that now more than ever we need less fantasy in city building than we do reality—as reality can’t keep being handed off to folks who are unable to consume their way to imagining existence as anything but decidedly not livable.

***

“Livability” backlashes are becoming increasingly common across the country. For instance, a piece in Crain’s Chicago questions whether Chicago’s catering to the global creative class is worth the debt it is incurring, and whether the split between the amenity-rich rich neighborhoods and the amenity-poor poor neighborhoods is worth the investment, particularly given the record levels of violence that is tearing parts of the city to pieces. And while Mayor Emanuel’s bike-pathing of the City moves forward because “he wants all of [Seattle's] bikers”, libraries are closing, red light cameras are ubiquitous, taxes are rising, and the city has a police manpower shortage of 1,000 that can’t be plugged because there’s no money. In fact things are so desperate that the City recently turned to Twitter to fight crime.

Stop-The-Violence Campaign in Chicago. Courtesy of Metropolis Coffee

In New York, the President of NYU is under a vote of no confidence for his plans to extend the creative classification of the campus into Greenwich Village. And while this has been ongoing—for instance, one commenter in the bookWhile We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York” states “There are days when I feel like I’m stranded in some upscale mall in Pasadena”—the recent city-sanctioned plan to bulldoze and “mix use” a residential neighborhood for “livability” purposes in order to “attract ambitious students and faculty to sustain the region’s economic base and quality of life” has pushed faculty and the community over the edge.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the plan—and fight for it—comes at a time with Richard Florida joining NYU as a Global Research Professor, with the President commenting on the unison this way:

There is a certain symmetry here: Richard Florida is joining NYU…at a moment when the University has begun responding to the forces that give rise to his most trenchant insights.

Even in Portland, the “livability” backlash is present. A September 2012 article entitled “Portland’s livability conflicts: Contradictions of affluence and affliction” states:

With its tree-lined streets, bike paths and transit options, Portland is beautiful and very safe. But behind that facade, Portland is also a city of contradictions.

These contradictions, according to the author, involve the discordance brewing between the poverty and “alarmingly large number of hypodermic needle” situation on one hand, and the topographical layering of that “everything is fine” sheen that remains intact for many coming to seek it.

Others in the community are questioning the theory of livability-driven economic development in its own right. For instance, in a piece entitled “The Portland Question: Livability or Job Growth?”, the author notes the growing worries in the region as to the path Portland is on:

Last year, Portland’s own catalyst for economic change, the Portland Development Commission, warned that the city’s traditional focus on livability projects such as streetcars and housing had not delivered the job growth needed to stay competitive. That’s a strong statement considering that livability has become what largely defines Portland’s character.

***

Taken together, perhaps it’s time for city leaders and citizens alike to take stock in how cities are being made, and for whom the making is focused. In fact maybe it’s time to drop the “livability” gimmicks that define Willy Wonka urbanism–or to squeeze “the style” out of “lifestyle” so as to expose the highest priority, the highest necessity: which is life.

So, you wanna make your city “hot”? Then cook the irons of affordable housing, mobility, education, and solid jobs.

Or, you know: livability.

This post originally appeared in New Geography on December 31, 2012.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

No Reservations Cleveland by Richey Piiparinen

There is a new video out marketing Cleveland and a new slogan: “Downtown Cleveland: It’s here”. Now, I struggle with critiquing it. One the one hand, I get its energy and optimism: the energy in Downtown is palpable, real—there is a bit of a youth movement to the core—and hence the compilation of images, sounds, and narratives that are trying to capitalize and communicate what is going down.

On the other hand, I see it as another missed opportunity. The message reads blasé. Tastes like a spoon of new car smell. In fact it could be about anywhere—Nashville, Cincinnati, Tampa, etc.; that is, instead of exposing what Cleveland really is and what’s unique about it, it’s distinctiveness as an attraction is buried in amenity-driven microphone-ing that screams we have sports teams and a casino and restaurants and the yet-spoiled exuberance of the young. But when you think about Cleveland—I mean honestly think about Cleveland: about its guts and soul and heart and people—is this the kind of stuff that comes to mind?

Of course not. So why do it?

Firstly, it speaks to a larger method of city revitalization that has been running America for some time. Here, the creative classification method entails imposing a rather homogenous, universal cool over a given city topography. Glitz, glamor, glass condos, and sports heroes. Bike paths and food trucks. Millennium Park Jr.’s. Etc. But with this whitewashing comes the chipping away at Cleveland’s Rust Belt soul. And it is this soul, mind you, that is a real attraction. After all, what is so hot about going everywhere when you can go somewhere?

And yes: Cleveland is a somewhere and has a something. This thing is part cultural, part aesthetic, part historical, and part a consequence of having to go on in the face of adversity. It is part wit, part ironic, part self-deprecating, but also part stand your ground in the defense of where you came from. And it’s all real, not ephemeral: our distinctiveness arising less from donning another city’s success than stripping naked and showing our nuts and bolts. Our warts. Our knuckles and heart.

Secondly, and this speaks to the marketing machine in general, but outfits that produce messaging at this level just cannot get beyond the culture of the boardroom from which the message emerges. Corporatism repels risk. And this not only relates to branding professionals but also to the customers seeking the brand. It’s like everyone knows their audience and their audience is everyone. It’s all about that one type we want, they say, and we want thousands of them. It is a safe strategy, riskless. But Cleveland doesn’t need safe. Playing it conservative has just kept us secure in our knowledge that we are always revitalizing. Instead, step outside, show your face to the world, as branding is and always has been about differentiation. But to do that you need to be aware and secure in knowing what makes you different.

It is alright. People will like you. And if they don’t, so be it. The coolest will. Said Anthony Bourdain in his “No Reservations: Cleveland” trip:

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philharmonic.

Update: A friend commented to me that authenticity and grit can’t be marketed. Well, check this new video out from Memphis. They got it. I get a feel for who they are. And it makes me want to check the city out.

This post originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic on November 1, 2012.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Anorexic Vampires and the Pittsburgh Potty: The Story of Rust Belt Chic by Richey Piiparinen

“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James. I can find King James World just about anywhere. Give me more Rust Belt Chic.” Jim Russell, blogger at Burgh Diaspora

National interest in a Rust Belt “revival” has blossomed. There are the spreads in Details, Atlantic Cities, and Salon, as well as an NPR Morning Edition feature. And so many Rust Belters are beginning to strut a little, albeit cautiously–kind of like a guy with newly-minted renown who’s constantly poking around for the “kick me” sign, if only because he has a history of being kicked.

There’s a term for this interest: “Rust Belt Chic”. But the term isn’t new, nor is the coastal attention on so-called “flyover” country. Which means “Rust Belt Chic” is a term with history–loaded even–as it arose out of irony, yet it has evolved in connotation if only because the heyday of Creative Class Chic is giving way to an authenticity movement that is flowing into the likes of the industrial heartland.

About that historical context. Here’s Joyce Brabner, wife of Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar, being interviewed in 1992, and introducing the world to the term:

I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.

Now to understand Brabner’s resentment we step back again to 1989. Pekar–who is perhaps Cleveland’s essence condensed into a breathing human–had been going on Letterman. Apparently the execs found Pekar interesting, and so they’d book him periodically, with Pekar–a file clerk at the VA–given the opportunity to promote his comic book American Splendor. Well, after long, the relationship soured. Pekar felt exploited by NYC’s life of the party, with his trust of being an invited guest giving way to the realization he was just the jester. So, in what would be his last appearance, he called Letterman a “shill for GE” on live TV. Letterman fumed. Cracked jokes about Harvey’s “Mickey Mouse magazine” to a roaring crowd before apologizing to Cleveland for…well…being us.

Think of this incident between two individuals–or more exactly, between two realities: the famed and fameless, the make-up’d and cosmetically starved, the prosperous and struggled–as a microcosm for regional relations, with the Rust Belt left to linger in a lack of illusions for decades.

But when you have a constant pound of reality bearing down on a people, the culture tends to mold around what’s real. Said Coco Chanel:

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”.

And if you can say one thing about the Rust Belt–it’s that it’s authentic. Not just about resiliency in the face of hardship, but in style and drink, and the way words are said and handshakes made. In the way our cities look, and the feeling the looks of our cities give off. It’s akin to an absence of fear in knowing you aren’t getting ahead of yourself. Consider the Rust Belt the ground in the idea of the American Dream.

2012-06-29-toledo_rust_harticle_intro.jpg
Photo credit: Sean Posey

Of course this is all pretty uncool. I mean, pierogi and spaetzle sustain you but don’t exactly get you off. Meanwhile, over the past two decades American cities began their creative class crusade to be the next cool spot, complete with standard cool spot amenities: clubs, galleries, bike paths, etc. Specifically, Richard Florida, an expert on urbanism, built an empire advising cities that if they want creative types they must in fact get ahead of themselves, as the young are mobile and modish and are always looking for the next crest of cool.

These “Young and the Restless”–so they’re dubbed–are thus seeking and hunting, but also: apparently anxious. And this bit of pop psychology was recently illustrated beautifully in the piece “The Fall of the Creative Class” by Frank Bures:

I know now that this was Florida’s true genius: He took our anxiety about place and turned it into a product. He found a way to capitalize on our nagging sense that there is always somewhere out there more creative, more fun, more diverse, more gay, and just plain better than the one where we happen to be.

After long–and with billions invested not in infrastructure, but in the ephemerality of our urbanity–chunks of America had the solidity of air. Places without roots. People without place. We became a country getting ahead of itself until we popped like a blowfish into pieces. Suddenly, we were all Rust Belters, and living on grounded reality.

Then somewhere along the way Rust Belt Chic turned from irony into actuality, and the Rust Belt from a pejorative into a badge of honor. Next thing you know banjo bingo and DJ Polka are happening, and suburban young are haunting the neighborhoods their parents grew up in then left. Next thing you know there are insights about cultural peculiarities, particularly those things once shunned as evidence of the Rust Belt’s uncouthness, but that were–after all–the things that rooted a history into a people into a place.

Take the Pittsburgh Potty. For recent generations it was about the shame of having a toilet with no walls becoming the pride of having a toilet with no walls. From Pittsburgh Magazine:

We purchased a house with a stray potty, and we’ve given that potty a warm home. But we simply pretended as if the stray potty didn’t exist, and we certainly didn’t make eye contact with the potty when we walked past it to do laundry.

The Pittsburgh Potty is basically a toilet in the middle of many Pittsburgh basements. No walls and no stalls. It existed so steel workers can get clean and use the bathroom without dragging soot through ma’s linoleum.

2012-06-29-PghPotty.JPG
Photo credit: Brookline Connection

Authentic: yes. Cool? A toilet?

Only in the partly backward Rust Belt of Harvey Pekar and friends. From the twitter feed of @douglasderda who asked “What is a Pittsburgh Potty?” Some responses follow:

“I told my wife I wanted to put ours back in, but she refused. I threatened to use the stationary tubs.”

“In my house, that would be known as my husband’s bathroom.”

“It’s a huge selling feature for PGH natives. I’m not kidding. We weren’t so lucky in our SS home.”

“We’re high class people. Our Pittsburgh Potty has a bidet. Well, it’s a hose mounted on the bottom, but still ….”

Eventually, this satisfaction found in re-rooting back into our own Rust Belt history has become the fuel of wisdom for even Coastal elites. Here’s David Brooks recently talking about the lessons of Bruce Springsteen’s global intrigue being nested in the locality that defines Rust Belt Chic:

If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place…you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.

Brooks continues:

The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman…Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.

And some are coming, albeit slowly, unevenly. But more importantly, as a region we are once again becoming–but nothing other than ourselves.

Authenticity, reality: this was and always will be the base from which we wrestle our dreams back down to solid ground.

American splendor, indeed.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The Tension Between Newcomers and Oldtimers in an Old City by Richey Piiparinen

On Cleveland–out of its vast variety of worlds (i)–sometimes I feel like I’m straddling two of them, with two different sets of assumptions.

I think they’ll be familiar to some folks across the Midwest:

World 1—Younger Clevelanders who grew up here, particularly on the west and south sides. Some description: late 20s to 30s. Many Catholic—be it through Polish, Irish, Slovakian, Italian, or whatever descent. Despite the rumors of a mass exodus most of them haven’t left. But those that grew up in the city have largely moved to the suburbs. Those that grew up in inner-ring suburbs have mostly moved farther out. A few buck the trend and move closer to the core—in Tremont, Downtown, but they’re anomalies. Some have stayed put. As for attitude, work—the indigenous are closer to the Baby Boomers than they are their actual age. They are in many ways an extension of a legacy city threaded forward into the present, complete with naysaying about how Cleveland has fallen (though they only knew it on its knees)—complete with manufacturing and union ties, cop and fireman ties. They haunt West Park bars and Lakewood bars and in general: old man bars, but not for irony, but a buzz. Many smoke still. Think the term “urban ag” is some derogatory remark. They talk about high school (which one? what year?) They have kids and drive tons and see bikes as things they have to put under the tree around the holidays. But they are solid, and are attached to Cleveland like a mole is attached to the body. They are loyal that way. Perhaps too loyal.

World 2—Clevelanders who grew up elsewhere, be it out of Ohio, in Ohio, but not considered from here (granted being considered “from here” is–by the indigenous–a pretty small radius). Some description: no coalescing ethnic or religious descent—a mix of everything, nothing. They live in the core, be it city neighborhoods, Downtown, or inner ring suburbs. Cleveland is more about today to them, with the legacy ties tethered mainly to their chagrin that there’s a legacy still weighing the city down. But they appreciate the city’s past, especially it’s built past. They form Facebook groups about a lot, like micro-lending and historical preservation and bike advocacy and outings. There’s a lot of biking overall—doing it, talking about it. And the newcomers have an entrepreneurial spirit, with start-ups and worker co-ops defining the day as opposed to structured times and static work stations. Urban planning to them doesn’t arouse shrugs—like with their indigenous counterparts—but is rather part of the day, like finding food. This is partly why they are attracted to Cleveland I am told, for it’s a real city with a real history, but with an opportunity to do real shit. But it’s more than that, less a cosmopolitan thing than a rust thing. For the Rust Belt means something: not just the consequence of aged metal, but an essence of tangibility and ruggedness in an age of sprawl, sanitization, and display.

Like I said, I’m sometimes in the context of both: Mid-30′s, am from here, am Catholic, go to old man bars, have a kid, went to St. Ed’s High School, but also: I live in the urban core, blog, studied urban planning, am a Rust Belt romantic, and know urban ag isn’t a put down. But these two worlds hardly meet, despite the age similarity. At least that is my experience.

And it’s not just a Cleveland thing apparently. From a blog Cincinnati Imports (click here to see their Facebook group):

ok, we have skirted around this issue long enough so let’s just put it out there. we, and by “we” i mean “i,” think it is weird that people from cincinnati always want to know where you went to high school…i moved here from new york where nobody went to high school there and even if they did, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

i don’t blame cincinnatians, this is what they are used to. but on a general level, i really think it reflects the insular nature of the city. no wonder so many people aren’t that welcoming to newcomers to the city… they don’t even realize there are any!

And then over in Pittsburgh, blogger Mike Madison, a newcomer to the city back in 1998, recently had this to say about that fine line between attachment to place and the city’s social capital stuck in motion:

This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition…come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh…

[Yet] All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place…

What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA…Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion…

Madison could have been talking about Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., and as indigenous to Cleveland, his post gave me pause. Because though I am indigenous, my interests give me the benefit of experiencing the world of the newcomer that is frankly not understood–and sometimes derided–by many I know. Yet we are called legacy cities for a reason. And for long we have been molded in a way of doing and being that eventually tilted our attachment to Rust Belt tradition into the stasis that enabled our oxidation in the first place.

And while I began this piece simply describing the gaps between two sets of groups, I finish it a bit more declarative than I intended: by saying that the world of the indigenous Clevelander has been less a world than it has been a fish tank—and we have been suffocating in our exclusion of fresh air and ideas for too long.

(i) Yes, this is a small representative of the world, and all the worlds of Cleveland, but it is used as a fine-grain example of a macro-level issue in a lot of Midwest cities dealing with the inability to take in new ideas. Be it the aversion to risk-taking, or the reluctance to accept others unlike what you came from, sometimes section of Cleveland retain an insularity that are not good for the city, and that serve to push newcomers and/or outsiders out. Not good for a place needing an influx of youth, diversity, and new ideas.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on March 8, 2012.

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