Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
[ So a few months back I got an email from Miriam Fathalla. As crazy as this sounds, she was quitting her job as an urban planner in Melbourne (yes, Australia) not to move to back home to Portland, but to come spend a few months checking out the Midwest. She is now here, traveling to various parts of the region, and blogging about it over at Miriam in the Midwest, which I’d encourage you to check out. She also graciously agreed to talk about her project and some of what she’s learned so far along the away. I hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]
Hi, I’m Miriam. I’m an American/Canadian citizen and an Australian permanent resident who has been living, researching and writing (www.MiriamintheMidwest.com) in Chicago since April, when I left my job as an Environmental Planning Officer at a Melbourne-area local government and moved myself, my curiosity, my Australian dollars and my post-graduate studies of Urban Planning and Community Development to an environment that would increase the value of these things: the American Midwest. I also kind of like run-on sentences. And fragments.
So why did I do all of this? Well, I’m intensely curious about people, their places and emerging and established social and economic structures in the American Midwest.
I have been following The Urbanophile for well over 2 years and the site’s analysis of the American Midwest coupled with stories about creative individuals and communities I found in Detroit Blog, Yes!, Ode, Good, New Internationalist, and New Geography inspired in me an increasingly strong attraction and curiosity about this thing called the Midwest, until it could no longer be ignored. As an American who hadn’t lived in the USA since 2004, I was curious to know what it meant to be an American anymore, I was frustrated by my fruitless attempts to turn my inspiration from reading these accounts into actions in my local area and I wasn’t entirely sure the Midwest existed (I kind of always thought it might be a Hollywood soundstage – like the moon landing). So, for these reasons I came to the Midwest to experience, research and write about emerging social and economic structures and discover what magic element was missing from my projects in Australia.
My broad, sweeping generalizing observations so far include:
People in the Midwest are young and fun.
As a 29 year old in Australia, I would go out with friends and often wonder where all of the people my own age were. But I have met many others in my age bracket with similar tastes and goals in Chicago and Detroit; even a handful that has also left professions to follow passions. This may be due to simply being in a larger urban environment or perhaps the stronger Australian economy and more conservative society is more conducive to twenty-somethings taking the house and husband path and American culture is more encouraging of independent and creative pursuits.
People in the Midwest are motivated.
The ambition, drive and energy of Chicago and Detroit are palatable. It’s not just willingness to work, it’s a desire to. Though this is likely connected to the elongated economic downturn of the area, especially compared to the currently surging Australian economy, this is none the less impressive. From Michael McDonald-themed dance parties to community learning structures to neighborhood parks to grassroots heat wave strategies (broken open fire hydrants), people are creating the elements of their society they wish existed. DIY isn’t just a scene here, a weekend pastime; it’s a way of life, the way of life of the Midwest.
This is likely due to the traditional middle-class nature of this society. I believe the proliferation of this mentality is a part of a wider social phenomenon that is being born out of shifting expectations of the government vs communities and I am excited to see this shift is not resulting in notions of competitive scarcity and increased social isolation but rather in creative and collaborative social initiatives and enterprises.
People in the Midwest can eat well.
Food is cheap. This may shock, offend or humor Midwestern residents, but compared to Australia food is definitely cheaper here. And I’m shopping and eating within the third largest American city – I’ve been told groceries are a lot cheaper in further outlying areas.
Stay with me, because this argument compounds.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps) provides qualifying low-income individuals and families with a monthly credit of a minimum of $200 that can only be spent on food items. In my opinion, Australia’s social welfare system is more generous overall than the USA’s, however this type of benefit does not exist in Australia. Rental assistance, unemployment, parenting payments and baby bonuses are available but nothing that directly ensures residents have access to food is part of the Australian system. I think the American SNAP system is gold.
Since February 2011, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “Double Up Food Bucks” program doubles the value of SNAP benefits used at many farmers markets in Michigan and Ohio. So, provided they can get to a participating farmer’s market, low-income residents are guaranteed access not just to food, but healthy, fresh and local produce.
The program works by trading SNAP benefit credits for bonus tokens. This alternative currency can only be spent on produce from within the state, thus stretching consumer food dollars while supporting the local economy and local food producers. As an added bonus, the program provides experiential local food market education; participants can’t help but learn about what grows in their local environment and in what season as they seek out local growers and their goods.
Also, there is no good Mexican food in Australia* and I love burritos. I love them so much I almost stopped on my way from Australia to Chicago in San Francisco for a day just to get my fill. But then I realized that Chicago has a very high Hispanic population, and my love for my future city grew exponentially.
Yes, I approve of the culinary culture of Chicago.
And it’s true that, portion sizes are enormous compared to those in Australia.
*I purposefully say this, hoping that some will be offended and make it their mission to prove me wrong when I return.
People in the Midwest are nice.
Yes my Chicago neighborhood is a far cry from my Australian home town of 300,000 where I often wouldn’t close, let alone lock my back door. Living on the western side of Humboldt Park, most people make a face when I tell them where I live, while I lovingly refer to my neighborhood as ‘vibrant’.
I’m on a relatively quiet one-way street a mini-block away from a major intersection but there’s always noise in the street. I consider it a lively buzz, the heartbeat that lets me know that there are others here with me. Right now I hear sirens, dogs barking, cars arriving and kids playing hide and seek. Often it’s someone(s) yelling in Spanish, ghetto beats and Spanish radio stations. They say you’re not really in Chicago until your bike gets stolen; count me as ‘arrived’ then. I’ve learned the difference between the sound of gun shots or fireworks from a couple of blocks away (but wouldn’t be stressed by hearing either), I see my neighbor dealing drugs on the street daily and the police patrol my neighborhood, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Despite Chicago being the largest city I’ve ever experienced, I find the people here to be incredibly friendly. Not just polite, but actually ‘want to get to know you’, ‘help you with your groceries’ friendly. Chivalry is rife and I’m not complaining. I can truthfully say that every time I have gotten on a bus with others, men of all ages have stood back to let myself and other women board first.
I believe there are a number of compounding reasons for this:
- Americans are generally more extroverted than Australians. However people in the Midwest seem to be friendlier than Portlanders.
- In an undergraduate Urban Communication course, I discussed how Hispanic cultures can be found to be more extroverted than white groups (apologies, I’m having difficulty finding the exact reference). Chicago has a high Hispanic population. I’m not saying I’m only running into friendly Hispanic people, but that the strong influence of these cultures may affect how everyone acts here. (And I admit that I live in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood so my experiences may have a certain bias.)
- People are inherently good, creative and social creatures. I’m happy to see frequent examples of people bonding together to withstand hardships and create positive responses to potentially stressful situations. I have found that the lack of law enforcement in Detroit actually makes way for must more creativity than violence.
People in the Midwest are proud.
Okay, first of all Americans in general are proud. This is sometimes perceived as arrogant or haughty by others.
One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival was just how long it took to order breakfast at Denny’s. White/wheat, how do you like your eggs, what sides… In Detroit I met a man who told me that he would purposefully ask for water with cucumber at bars just to prove that when asked what he would like, he should be able to be served whatever it is that he actually would like at that moment.
I believe this proliferation of choice and the belief that we should have an abundance of options is a direct derivative of promise of American liberty. Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (and I was terrified when I discovered this). Considering how often references are made to this document, The Constitution and the rights and responsibilities these articles describe, it is clear to me that this absence would affect the comparative culture of Australia. However which is ‘better’ is of course impossible to say. However a recent article in the New York Times is relevant to the discussion.
But Midwesterners are really proud. Proud of their country, their region, their state, their city, even their neighborhood and street. I’m not really sure what is behind this, but I’m enjoying the scenery of t shirts, stickers and business names that proclaim hometown pride. And I admit that I’m getting sucked into it too.
When I share my new found love for the Midwest with others, pride of place is often reflected back at me. However sometimes it has been met with raised eyebrows and “You haven’t been here in the winter yet, have you?”
I understand that the summers in Chicago are generally known for their magic, especially in relation to the city’s dastardly cold, bleak and isolating winters. Therefore it may be that the vitality of place I am currently experiencing is the annual aggregate energy of 8 million people condensed into a few hospitable months; however I won’t know for some time.
According to today’s travel bookings, I will leave the Midwest at the end of October. In the meantime, I am open to any suggestions regarding individuals, communities or organizations that are doing interesting things in the Midwest that lead to more connected, sustainable and healthy societies.
My goals are to document people’s stories and develop my understandings, while growing my network of community development, urban planning and design professionals and enthusiasts. I consider what I do ‘gonzo journalism and contemporary anthropology’ and my card says even says so.
My research so far included pieces on group dance phenomena, placemaking, the last company town in the USA, community signage, informal street-level governance and more while I have articles on alternative food structures, community composting, crowd sourced funding, hometown pride, an underground library, alternative grassroots health care schemes, alternative housing, Detroit blogs, sustainable fashion and the general magnificence of Detroit in the works.
I have gone on “field trips” to Portland, Oregon and Detroit, Michigan and have more planned for Iowa City, Omaha, Wyoming, Winnemucca, Nevada, Burning Man, Provo, Utah, Moab, Utah, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kansas City, Missouri, St Louis, Missouri, New York City, Los Angeles, California, as well as a return to Detroit).
Please feel free to contact me via my blog at Miriam in the Midwest with any questions, comments contacts or suggestions for further research.
Sunday, August 14th, 2011
This is premature article. I hoped to develop my thinking much more before posting it. But since there were some questions and a lot of conversation on my HARMONI thread about the brand identity and “brand promise” of Indianapolis, I thought I would post it now, with the idea of stimulating discussions and soliciting ideas.
Please keep in mind while reading that there are two separate questions: what is Indy’s brand identity, and what would the city like it to be in the future?
After my most recent pecha kucha presentation, someone came up to me and asked a question: “What is Indianapolis’ identity?” She noted that when you think “Texas” a whole series of associations comes to mind: ten-gallon hats and cowboys, “everything’s bigger in Texas”, a certain exaggered masculinity combined with traditional “Yes, Ma’am” manners. But Indianapolis didn’t seem to conjure up anything for this person or those she worked with. It was a constant topic of conversation. This is, perhaps, not uncommon in the area. I noted how Louisville struggles with the same questions of identity.
I attribute the lack of strong identity to a few factors:
- The city’s image is tighly linked to that of Indiana as a whole, and thus to a general Midwest image. It has not traditionally been viewed as distinct from its state in the way that, say, New York City has been.
- Indianapolis has not historically been prominent on the national radar because it is a smaller city.
- The images that are conjured up when thinking of the city are those that cause embarrassment to a lot of people locally, such as auto racing and tractors.
Think of the first point. What do you call someone from Indianapolis? I can’t think of anything other than “Hoosier”. As I noted in that pecha kucha presentation, Indianapolis is culturally Hoosier. There is not a huge cultural gulf between the city and the rest of the state. I happen to think that’s a good thing. However, the Indiana association does predominantly conjure rural images such as flat farmland, tractors, small towns, etc. that are clearly not what a city like Indianapolis is about. So I do believe city needs to add a layer of unique civic identity on top of the existing stack (Hoosier, Midwesterner, American, etc). While Indianapolis should by no means try to declare independence from Indiana, it does need to strengthen its own brand.
On the second point, I’ve long noted that while other Midwestern cities are trying to turn around decline, and have to come to terms with their diminished relative standing in the nation, Indy’s profile (and that of some other places like Columbus, Ohio) is on the increase. Indianapolis has never been a larger, more important, more influential player in the nation and world that it is today. Is it in the truly big leagues yet? No, but it is at its highest level ever and is still on the way up. As it continues that upward trajectory, it will start to get more press. For example, the Colts have been incredibly instrumental in bringing Indy to the fore in the public imagination. So assuming they keep it up (and hopefully win a few more Superbowls!), the Colts (and potentially just the Colts blue color), could become more associated with Indy. Raising the city’s profile is a slow process, but the trend lines are positive here.
Lastly, let’s face it, Indy is carrying around a chip on its shoulder about being a “cow town” sort of place. It is desperate to prove its big city bona fides and have people see it as a real big city. That’s why there is so much focus on things like swanky restaurants, shops, pro sports, light rail, etc. Indy is desperate to be perceived as having the trappings of a “real” big city and be taken seriously by the Chicago’s and New York’s of this world. I think this leads to embarrassment about the things the city is associated with and a desire on the part of some to downplay its strongest brand assets.
The best example of this is auto racing. Indianapolis and the 500 Mile Race are basically synonymous around the world. Yet the city does not fully champion it as core to its modern identity. One, because it doesn’t want to be viewed as a one trick pony, which isn’t necessary a bad thing. It sees itself as being more than a one event town and is eager to showcase the new. Two, because in the US auto racing is considered déclassé by the urban elite, and the brand image of the typical Indy car or NASCAR race fan isn’t something the city really wants to portray itself as being all about. Similarly for all the traditional Hoosier attributes such as pork tenderloin sandwiches.
This is typical behavior for all human beings. When we were little kids, we wanted to emulate the older kids. When we were freshman, we were desperate to be cool like the upperclassman. As we mature through the various stages of life, we often come to view the things we left behind with embarrassment, as “little kids stuff”. We go New York and see fashionable people strutting through the streets and we feel inadequate. I understand completely the impulse behind this. But as we fully mature, we settle into our skin and become comfortable with who we are and confident about ourselves. We’re able to resist peer pressure a little better.
I personally try to live by the credo of what I call the “random bastard” theory. That is, why should I care what some random bastard on the street thinks of me? There was a Dr. Pepper commercial a while back that showed a guy happily doing all sorts of embarrassing things for his girlfriend: buying tampons, folding her underwear at the laundromat, holding the clothes she wants to try on at the boutique. The only thing he’s not willing to do is share his Dr. Pepper. We all have a good laugh at this, but I think it illustrates the way that we all as human beings care very much what even random strangers might think, even about activities that are perfectly normal and rational. The first time I took the Eurostar train to Paris, I walked out into the Gare du Nord desperate to look like I knew exactly where the cab stand was. There’s nothing I hate more than looking like I don’t know what I’m doing in public, and especially in Paris I wanted very much to look like I was a sophisticated regular, not a doofus American tourist who’d never set foot in that station before. But what could be more natural than having never been in a particular train station or airport before? It’s a perfectly normal thing. So I wandered around like an idiot tourist for a while and finally found the cab stand. I try to always remember that I shouldn’t spend any time worrying about what those random bastards on the street think. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.
I think there’s a similar process at work in cities. As Indy (and most places) start to move up in the ranks, they want to be taken seriously by the upperclassmen. But the cities that are truly successful and truly maturing have moved beyond imitation of what others deem cool. They have the confidence to boldly chart their own path to the future, and to find their own unique success. Cities, very successful ones, as diverse as Austin, Las Vegas, Portland, and Charleston, SC. have figured this out.
When it comes to brand image, having all those big city trappings ultimately amounts to nothing. Rather, I argue that it is those truly organic local items that are the key to building a future brand image. Look at almost any corporate rebranding campaign. The first thing the company does it try to go back through its history and understand its core essence, its “brand DNA” to use an overworked term. Even the hippest of companies such as fashion houses do this, mining their archives for inspiration for future collections. That’s what Indianapolis needs to do in order to understand where it is and where it should go. Indy can tack on pro sports teams and light rail lines till the cows come home, so to speak, but that provides nothing distinct for anyone to latch onto. And whether things like auto racing and pork tenderloins are good or bad is often purely a matter of attitude and perception.
Consider a few examples. Smoking is considered a lower class activity in America these days. Yet in France they smoke like chimneys and everyone thinks it is cool. Why’s that? People talk about Hoosiers chowing down on deep fried tenderloins and the like as a sign of provincial unsophistication and poor eating habits, then go to Belgium and go gaga over french fries in a greasy paper cone slathered in mayo. I fail to see the big difference. Nobody thinks Chicago hot dogs, Philly cheese steaks, or NYC pizza are bad, despite how fattening and horrible for you they are. They are all sources of pride to their communities. Heck, in Europe they even decided auto racing (Formula 1) was cool and something rich, sophisticated people should be into.
What Indy needs to do create that brand image is to stop being embarrassed at what it is and start showing a little pride and swagger about it. What could be more hillbilly than ten gallon hats and the whole Texas schtick? Yet they are perhaps the most proud people of what they are of any state – and it has worked well for them. Indy seems embarrassed of anything that has a whiff of Southern, blue collar, or rural influence, but the fastest growing cities in America are in the South, where they are proud of their heritage. Why can’t Indy show the same pride and swagger? I’m not talking about the naive boosterism that is so prominent in some circles. That really is embarrasssing. But rather about setting a lofty goal and ambition, based clearly in the local culture. A good mixture of high ambition, bravado, and audacity, all in a local wrapper.
I think a lot of the places of the South are a good model to follow. For many years they were beaten down, economically depressed, with many national image stigmas. Yet they reinvigorated themselves through optimisim, embracing the best parts of their image while shedding the worst (creating this image of “the New South”) and having that swagger I mentioned.
I consider Atlanta as a great example. Indy and Atlanta were about the same size 50 years ago. Today, Atlanta is one of America’s largest, most booming cities. Back in the 80’s when their metro area reached the 2 million mark, civic leaders launched a bunch of balloons to celebrate. Can you imagine such a thing happening in Indy? It would probably be greeted as a sign of the apocalypse by many. When nobody gave them a chance, Atlanta said, “Let’s host the Olympics”. They believe they are destinted to be one of the top world cities. All too often, Indy just seems happy to be here, satisfied with its modest levels of outperformance versus the nation and a region that is suffering.
I just got back from Nashville, a city slightly smaller than Indy and only growing a bit faster, and there is a huge belief in their future as the next great city of the South. It is very much worth a visit to see how they are reinventing themselves, with much bigger plans and ambitions than Indy, even though I’d argue they have little to nothing on Indy and in fact are inferior in many ways. And of course they are building a lot of their identity around country and contemporary Christian music, more déclassé items among the urban elite. But what they’ve done is a put a modern spin on it with their glitzy “Nashvegas” approach. I think it is well worth spending a long weekend in Nashville checking out the vibe in the town.
I believe a successful brand repositioning for a city will probably rely heavily on creating the new brand from the essence of the old, as well as creating a new level of ambition that is combined with an optimistic world view. The first part gives people something they can relate to. The second gives them something to believe in and inspire them. I think this is something that Indy needs to do. It needs to take the best of its existing Hoosier and Midwest identity, get rid of the non-core negative aspects of it, and set forth a new ambition and positive vision for the city and what it can achieve.
So, yes, Indy’s identity is a bit weak today, but I believe the ingrediants are there to really create something. Perhaps one day Indianapolis could even be “the Capital of the New Midwest”. Ok, Chicago will always be the capital of the Midwest, but it is a complete outlier and so different from other places that you can almost consider it its own standalone region – it seems to be doing its best to declare independence from the Midwest in its bid to join the league of world cities. The lessons of Chicago are for the most part not applicable to other Midwestern cities. This leaves room for Indy to take the lead in creating a new identity amongst the real Midwest, and redefining the region for the 21st century. Indianapolis, along with cities like Columbus and Kansas City, offer a real Midwestern model of success, one that can produce viable lessons for how other parts of the Midwest can reinvent themselves to be successful.
What would this involve?
- Self-conciously define and embrace the “New Midwest” identity, keeping the best of the past and the present, while having the courage to change the things that need it for the future. Change is always a hard sell in Indiana, but if it is not a wholesale throwing out of the current identity, but more of a reshaping, it is probably a lot easier to pull off.
- Things to keep and build an identity around for the city are auto racing (yes, keep it front and center), the Colts, the small city feel, pork tenderloin sandwiches, the “good, solid, reliable people” ethic, basketball mania, highway orientation (“the Crossroads of America”), patriotism, etc. Think about the imagery the city, the state, the region conjures up. As I noted in my HARMONI review, some of these are tractors in the field, lunch pails and smokestacks, fierce competition on the sports field, airplane engines, big rigs, a researcher’s white lab coat, war memorials, and so on. These are powerful, masculine images. Chicago took more or less those same ingrediants and called itself “the City of Big Shoulders”, an image it is now consciously abandoning (a decision I feel is a terrible one, incidentally). There’s something similar there for Indy, both in terms of expressing what the place has to offer, and as inspiration for a design language and design identity for the city.
- Here’s my favorite example of taking what is and making it what could be. Hoosiers have a sort of contrarian, even ornery attitude towards the world. Indiana stood virtually alone on DST for the longest time, for example. But this is exactly what I advocate – having the courage to go your own way and not follow the lemmings. In a world where everyone else is following the pack, Indianapolis (and perhaps Indiana) dare to be different. The key is to start applying that attitude towards shaping the future, instead of digging in about the past (e.g., DST). The exact same attitude that so many view as a weakness is in fact, when used properly, a huge strength. This is what I mean by forging the “New Midwest”.
- Figure out how to leave behind some of the more negative aspects of the current brand image such as environmental degradation, racism, and, for the city itself, some of the more overtly rural imagery inappropriate to an urban envirnoment. For example, I’ve argued before that the black community of Indianapolis should be front and center as one of the central growth pillars for the central city, and represents one of the great untapped resources of the city. Virtually no other cities have blacks as one of their target markets. This leaves a big opportunity for Indy to build on its rich black heritage to create an image of one of America’s great cities for blacks. Incidentally, this was one of the things that has been absolutely critical to Atlanta’s success (“the city too busy to hate”).
- Be optimistic about the future, and set high goals and ambitions for the city. There are places in the Midwest that deserve to feel gloomy. Detroit, for example. Plenty of places are in bad shape. While Indy is not immune to the current economy or the forces of globalization to be sure, it is actually beating not just the Midwest but the nation at large in things like population growth, percentage of residents with a college degree, new high tech jobs, etc. I personally believe that Indy is a city with huge future potential. It’s not the only Midwest place like that to be sure. But it belongs in the top tier of places, no doubt.
- Embrace getting bigger and boosting national and international prominence. This alone will create better brand recognition among the public at large. So many people in this day and age are anti-growth. They cite all the perceived negatives of it. But growth is good. Growth is what provides opporunities for people and what ultimately provides the scale necessary to support those urban amenities like rail transit that so many people want. Those types of things take people and wealth to support them, and growth is how you get it.
These are just some ideas. I had intended to let this bake more and think harder about how to extract the current brand image and how specifically to update it and strategies for implementation. Instead, I decided to throw them out there and let the world collaborate on it with me. This is a complex, difficult matter, not one with simple answers. And ultimately, a culture and vision of a place grow organically out of the people who live there. Good leaders can point the way, but it can’t be imposed top down.
Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
This post originally ran on July 6, 2008.
Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
[ Thanks so much to Rust Wire for permission to repost this piece – Aaron. ]
I’ve always had this aversion to boosterism. I can barely stand to follow the Cleveland chamber of commerce’s Twitter feed. When Forbes said Cleveland was the most miserable city, I was annoyed, but mostly because I felt like there was really no need to point out that Cleveland has some pretty pervasive problems.
Sometimes, living in Cleveland, and being part of a social network that is defiantly pro-urban, I feel like I am being inundated with the opposite message–that Cleveland is great. This perspective screams that Cleveland is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “foodie” restaurants and arts venues. Among this group, there seems to be an honest belief that those from outside the city who would question its greatness have some kind of agenda, or are misinformed. Like it’s all a giant conspiracy theory against Cleveland.
It’s making me tired. Now, I understand, that Cleveland gets a lot of bad press and some of it may be undeserved. But I think we need to be honest with ourselves.
The poverty rate in Cleveland is 26 percent. The median household income is $25,000. Last year the police discovered 11 women’s bodies decomposing in a house on the East Side.
Here’s the thing. I live in Cleveland. I have a good life. My neighbors are amazing. But I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t go to the public schools. 50,000 kids got to the Cleveland public schools. Only 54 percent of them graduate.
These statistics didn’t come from Forbes. They are the reality of life in Cleveland. And life in Cleveland is very hard for many people whose prospects for the future may be very dim. I think we, even as urban boosters, need to acknowledge this.
I guess fundamentally, I think it is a bit disingenuous to ignore these glaring realities and claim without qualification that outsiders are wrong to point out Cleveland’s dysfunction. Worse, even, I think this blind boosterism, this knee-jerk defensiveness, becomes a sort of defense of the status quo—and the status quo in Cleveland is indefensible.
Cleveland is famous across the country for its ghettos. We have miles and miles of neighborhoods that are the exact definition of ghettos—95+ percent black, 90+ percent poor. I’m talking about East Cleveland, Hough, Mt. Pleasant, Glenville, Central, Kinsman, this list goes on. These neighborhoods have been this way for decades. In fact, for the most part, they have continually been getting worse.
I don’t see what good it does for Clevelanders to shout about how wonderful the city is when anyone who is being honest with themselves can see that Cleveland is a place where something has gone terribly awry. Segregation. Sprawl. Disinvestment. Corruption. Cleveland could be a case study in any of these problems.
These are the issues urban boosters should be focused on in Cleveland. Instead we all seem to be focused on the few glimmers of hope—the cool new coffee shop in the gentrified neighborhood, food trucks and community gardens. And when a small businessman is killed in a robbery, we don’t dwell on that. We don’t dwell on the thousands of children who fall through the cracks each year in the public school system. We don’t dwell on the smart and talented people that, acting in their own best interest, move away every day.
Urban boosters in Cleveland are in a difficult position. Maybe for us it’s just too overwhelming to try to think about tackling so many problems. I know people think, ‘Maybe if we focus on the positive, we will somehow win back some of what was lost.’ I know they are well meaning.
I don’t think boosterism is fooling anyone though. I think we’re only fooling ourselves. Worse, I think we’re giving a pass to the power structure that has aided in, and continues to propagate, this fundamentally unjust environment.
This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on February 2, 2011.
Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
Ok, so it’s a staged public service announcement, but still pretty cool. The mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania shows that he’s mad as hell about drivers parking in bike lanes, and he’s not going to take it anymore. He then proceeds to crush an illegally parked Mercedes with an armored personnel carrier. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011
[ Here’s another from the Where blog archives – hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]
Before we get into Gomez, though, a bit of background on Mendoza. The city, home to approximately 111,000 people (with 850,000 in the metropolitan area), is located at the foot of the Andes and is known for its exquisite beauty — it’s nickname is “The Oasis City.” It started out in 1561 with the traditional 5×5 block town plan surrounding a central square and Catholic church that the Spanish used for basically every city they built when colonizing South America. The dimensions of this plan (streets, sidewalks, lot sizes) were notoriously rigid, leading to a rather uniform look to the central areas of many South American towns. But when a massive earthquake leveled Mendoza in 1861, it was rebuilt with much more generous spatial allottments. Sidewalks and streets were widened, trees were planted, more expansive plazas laid out, and one of the city’s most unique features — a series of stone irrigation ditches that run along the streets to water the trees — was created. In fact, Mendoza is considered by some to be the most beautiful city in Argentina — a steep claim, considering that this country can claim the likes of Salta, Tucumán, and Buenos Aires (the Paris of the Americas).
So, with a reputation like that, how does Mendoza explain Edificio Gomez? Just look at this thing. It’s…I don’t even know what it is. It’s bizarrchitecture, that’s for sure. The verticality of the campanille is impressive…I’ll bet the thing looks three times its height from the sidewalk. Or at least it would if the architect hadn’t wrapped it in an industrial riverfront warehouse from Cleveland circa 1940. Seriously, what is that? And then there’s the crown, which is…it’s just sublime. The above photo was the first image I’d ever seen of the tower, with the crown peeking over the trees in the central Plaza España. Without the bulk of the building, the crown has an instant “Holy hot spiky messes, Batman, what IS that?” effect. It looks like the bastard child of Antonio Sant’Elia and Fritz Lang. Or of their buildings, anyway. Whatever. Words fail.
From what I can gather, the building was designed by someone named Civit, who “based” it on the art deco towers of 1920s Manhattan. At first, when I read that, I got excited at the prospect of the Forgotten Continent (oh please, everyone both knows and cares about Africa; but who can find Bolivia on a map?) coming complete with its own forgotten Insane/Visionary Modernist Architect With a Vaguely Industrial-Sounding Psuedonym (Corbu del Sur!). Alas, the guy’s full name was Manolo Civit. How droll.
Honestly, I am totally crazy about this building, and I can’t really figure out why. It doesn’t even really fit in the ugly-chic category that Jean Nouvel has been blazing a trail through lately. It lacks the self-awareness and the extra three pieces of flare. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s utterly unique? Or that it looks like the watchtower-clubhouse of an eccentric and reclusive manchild? Or that they light it up at night like some kind of baroque prison Christmas tree? I don’t know. It could be any of those things. I just know that I like what I see.
There have been several recent articles and blog posts listing the authors’ nominations for the world’s ugliest buildings, and I think that it’s worth noting that Edificio Gomez didn’t make any of them. Granted, that might have something to do with the fact that it’s an extremely obscure building from an obscure city in a country that I’d be willing to bet at least 50% of “US Americans” have never heard of…but let’s give Gomez the benefit of the doubt and say that it missed the lists because it is not, in fact, ugly. Instead, it is just completely bizarre. And really, that’s much more fun anyway.
At any rate, stumbling on the Edificio Gomez has me wondering what other wacky architectural curiosities are hiding out there in the gazillion little cities around the world that I’ve never heard of. Is there such a thing in your city? If so, please share. In the meantime, let’s enjoy Gomez in all of his…erm…glory.
This post originally appeared in Where on September 27, 2007.
Sunday, July 31st, 2011
Wendell Cox provoked a bit of a predictable tempest with his recent piece on migration, “The Decade of the South.” I suspect Cox relishes his role as provocateur-in-chief. So I’ll let him provoke me into summarizing some of the thoughts I’ve had on migration.
There’s a school of thought at that net domestic migration is the primary statistic of urban health. I believe I’ve even said something of the sort myself. In this logic, people are “voting with their feet” about which cities and states are implementing the best policies.
Of course, this creates a challenge for urbanists because the migration data is all away from major dense urban cores towards the South and various Sprawlville, USA’s. Hence when these numbers are thrown in their faces, they dismiss or discount them.
But people who don’t believe this tells the whole story are quick to understand the power of migration logic in other situations. Cities that are attractive to international immigrants are feted, as are those that hoovering up the “creative class”. Becoming a preferred migration destination for “talent” is a standard paradigm in urbanist development circles. And of course the slowing of migration to the Sun Belt and a nascent back to the city movement have been heralded by some as the end or reversal of previous trends.
So I think at some level, we all realize that migration matters. The question is, what is it telling us? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but wanted to share a few thoughts around various aspects of this.
Vote With Your Feet
This seems to be the dominant paradigm, and there is clearly something to it. In this view, people decide to relocate based on various factors like taxes and regulation, cost of living, amenities, type of environment, economic opportunity, and more.
If you look at the Midwest, the cities that are doing well on most measures – Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis – also have net in-migration or are nearly neutral, while places like Detroit and Cleveland are losing people. Chicago is an interesting counter-example of a place that is conventionally viewed to be successful but has net out-migration. I’ll return to that in a bit.
We also see that talent hubs like Seattle, Austin, Portland, and Raleigh are seeing people move in. They are certainly out performing many other less sexy locales.
And Austin of course is in Texas, where huge numbers of people have moved. As much as we urbanists might not like it, the Texas story is real. The state has generated enormous numbers of new jobs, a total unmatched by other states. The same is true of many other southern places.
So clearly there is something to this notion of voting with your feet.
The Limits of Net Migration
But when we look behind the numbers, we start to see interesting patterns emerge. First off, migration isn’t uniform within states. Cox notes that Ohio had huge out-migration and categorized it as an “economic basket case”, yet Columbus has in-migration. Indiana is losing people, but Indianapolis is not. Nor are suburban areas near Louisville and Cincinnati. Given that different regions within the same state perform very differently, state level policies like tax rates and right to work laws can’t be the only answer.
So although “vote with your feet” has validity, perhaps there are other dynamics at work.
Greenfields vs. Brownfields
The South is frequently touted as a place whose favorable tax and labor climate is attracting business. But that is far from uniform. Places like Atlanta exploded into major business centers, other cities did not. In Tennessee, Nashville is thriving while Memphis is not. The south even has outright Rust Belt cities like Birmingham. Why are there so many struggling places in this nominally favorable environment?
Jim Russell suggests another key driver of the move to the south is the enormous advantages of greenfield development:
Bankrupt Birmingham is located in Alabama, a right-to-work state. Tennessee also has this distinction and is home to recovering industrial-dependent Chattanooga. Both the South and the North experienced an implosion of the manufacturing sector. Supposedly better state policies in the Sun Belt didn’t save any of those places from this fate. Why would it work magic in Pennsylvania for Erie?
In the face of globalization, states seem increasingly impotent. I suspect that most people, including the politicians, don’t understand the forces at work. I see a number of parallels with the brain drain issue. There is a poor accounting of the current situation. Ideological thinking dominates political discourse and policy suffers as a result.
During the 1980s, deregulation was the economic dogma of choice. The states with the least rules and lowest taxes should win. That’s not how it played out. If your city was saddled with high legacy costs, then state policy didn’t matter. Just so happens that the Rust Belt had (still has) a lot more of those cities than the Sun Belt did.
You can find the same economic geography within regions concerning the urban core and suburban periphery. Essentially, Americans have moved from brownfields to greenfields. When the unit of analysis is state, that trend gets lost in the data noise.
This is not to absolve bad decision making. High legacy costs in part derive from bad policy choices. But there is an independent logic to greenfield development. Because the world constantly changes but things like your physical location don’t, and your built environment and institutions are difficult to change, this means any city will eventually find itself facing the call of reinvention. Things like infrastructure and buildings constructed to outdated standards, institutional cruft, and deferred liabilities are almost inevitable, no matter how well run your city or state.
There’s also the fact that migration, particularly international migration, involves networks. Why do people move? What factors into their decisions? A lot of times, factors other than purely economic considerations come into play, such as a personal connection to a place, proximity to family, or proximity of ethnic kinfolk.
One Louisvillian told me that “Our most important export is our women.” By that, he meant that college educated women who moved away from Louisville often returned with husband and family in tow when they had children. In effect, a significant source of new blood in Louisville is people who marry Louisville women and move back to be close to family. This illustrates both “boomerang migration” (return to a place you left) and family networks.
It also shows importantly that where you live is also a function of where you are in your life. I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to expect or desire people to live in the same place from cradle to grave. What makes sense for a young single might not make sense for a family with kids or for a retired couple.
International migration works on family and ethnic networks as well and is often startlingly specific. For example, many Mexican towns have developed almost sibling relationships with US cities because migrants from that town clustered in a particular place. One example is the centralization of immigrants from the town of Tala, Mexico in Indianapolis. This was the subject of a Nuvo cover story “Bienvenidos a Talapolis“:
[Tala] Mayor Cipriano Aguayo, one of the immigrant pioneers to Indianapolis in the 1970s, returned to Mexico when he was able to save enough money to support his family. Aguayo still has two brothers in Indianapolis. According to residents of Tala, including the mayor, nearly every home in the small town has a family member in the United States and the great majority of those are in Indianapolis. The money they send back is extremely important for Tala’s economic sustainability.
“More money circulates in this region due to remittances than anything else,” Aguayo says, “so we depend a good deal on the cash that comes from Indianapolis.”
Some of it supports civic projects, an increasingly common trend in Mexico. Lucila Madrigal, a Tala municipal official whose sons live in Indianapolis, reports that emigrant savings helped finance a bridge, renovate the cemetery and pave streets in the county. Local families depend even more on money sent home by their “absent sons.”
While Tala’s immigrants to Indianapolis maintain strong familial, cultural and financial ties to Mexico, they have also helped build the sort of cultural foundations here in Indianapolis that both facilitate assimilation and maintain the ties that bind this transnational community together.
“We Mexicans aren’t used to being without some family nearby,” says Fabian Alonso, who divides his time between Tala and Indianapolis. “So we all try to get someone from here to move up there and that’s how we created our neighborhoods that replicate those in Tala.”
Maybe economic opportunity brought original pioneers to Indianapolis, but much of the rest of the migration was driven as much by network effects as economic logic. Otherwise why not just stay in Texas rather than keep going north? And from what I’ve read, many of Indy’s original international immigrants arrived more or less by accident or mistake. The roots of the Tala diaspora lay in the 1970’s, when Indianapolis was a backwater town trying to shed it’s “India-no-place” label.
There are plenty of other examples around. Fort Wayne has 3,000 Burmese, not because it is an economic hotbed, but because of an active local policy to bring in refugees.
The large, traditional American port of entry cities have both the most and easiest physical connections to other countries, as well as long established and robust migration networks. So it is no surprise they remain dominant in international immigration. This may not say much about whether that is “logically” the places immigrants should go.
Another source of migration is people retiring and moving someplace to enjoy it. As this often involves leaving places with lousy climates for more sunny locales, it is a built in source out migration from the Frost Belt. These people may be leaving for reasons that have nothing to do with the amenities, tax structures, or regulatory schemes that are favorable to business and labor. Rather, they want places that are good to enjoy their life and don’t place a financial burden on their particular financial profile.
Huge numbers of people moved to Phoenix, but does that mean Phoenix is a great business center, or just a great place to golf?
Network effects are also in play here. A retired couple I know from Pittsburgh just moved to North Carolina to be closer to their children who left years ago. This might have said something about what Pittsburgh’s economy used to look like, but it doesn’t have much bearing on what it is today. Economics might explain the children, but doesn’t explain the parents. Places that previously experienced an out-migration wave driven by a bad economy or policy might, for this reason, suffer a hangover for many years even if the local economy hits an inflection point.
Again, this is a result of stage of life, not per se local policy. Many people may choose to retire in place, but the reality is, many others won’t.
Moving Out, Or Not Moving In?
There’s also the question as to whether or not net out migration is more a reflection of people leaving or not coming. People are constantly migrating away from everywhere. The question is, are they being replenished? A place could have a below normal out migration rate, but if no one is moving there, it still shows net out migration.
This could particularly be the case in places that are near an inflection point. Bad conditions have stopped driving people out, but nothing has changed to create an inbound dynamic. Perhaps because there have been so few people moving in, there are few established inbound migration networks. Also, the reputation of the place (or lack thereof) may cause many to not even put it on the list. Portland gets touted as a great place in the media every day, so people who might be interested in what it has to offer will naturally have that city come to mind. That’s less likely to happen for Pittsburgh.
Jim Russell again argues that we should look mostly at in-migration, not net migration as the figure. I’m not sure to what extent I totally agree with this, but there seems to be something to it, particularly for cities at an inflection point.
New York City
Then there’s the case of America’s largest tier one cities, and especially New York. These cities have very high net domestic out-migration. Cox notes that the majority of New York state’s 1.65 million out migrants left from New York City.
But it isn’t hard to see that a place like New York is a structural exporter of people. First, it is a huge magnet for international immigrants. After a time in NYC, if some of them move on then, bang, they are domestic out migrants. On the domestic ledger that’s 0 in, 1 out, a clear net loss, but not the whole story.
Also, it’s noted that NYC takes in lots of young people, but many leave when they get marrie and have kids. Again, let’s play this scenario out. Two young singles move to NYC, marry, have two kids. When those kids reach school age, they move to the suburbs or back to the wife’s hometown in Kansas City. That’s 2 in, 4 out, a net loss of 2 people.
Is this a bad thing? I won’t suggest that we shouldn’t try to improve our urban schools or make our central cities more family friendly. Of course we should. But it strikes me that places like NYC are never going to be the destination of choice for families with school age children. Even if it captured more market share, it seems that it will always be exporting families.
Again, is it reasonable to expect that every place will be equally as attractive to people at all stages of their life? I don’t think so. Some places are better for young singles, some for families, others for retirees. So anyplace that is attractive to young singles is likely to be a structural source of out migration.
If you think again about New York, it takes in immigrants – raw recruits if you will – and spits out Americans. It takes in young singles – more raw recruits – and spits out up skilled people with families. There is huge value added in this. In a sense, New York City is a gigantic refinery for human capital. It’s a smelter for people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be any more sad about New York exporting people than we are about it exporting financial services. Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies. Maybe we should be thanking it for providing this valuable service.
Whatever the case, any place that is a magnet for immigrants and young people, as most tier one cities are, are likely to be structural sources of out migration no matter what they do.
Jim Russell on Migration
It’s no secret I’m a fan of Jim’s thinking on talent and migration matters. His blog Burgh Diaspora is required reading, IMO. As I hoped he might, he chimed in with a comment here, which I’m including below so everyone will see it:
Interesting to see all the aspects of migration packed into one post. Still, some additional data categories should be considered. It’s not so much that migration matters, but demography matters. We tend to play fast and loose with net migration and population numbers. Declining population has become synonymous with net out-migration. That’s a gross distortion.
Each shrinking city has a unique demographic profile. Break it all down by age cohorts and the analysis gets very complicated. In my opinion, it also gets more useful. What’s the urban dependency ratio? A huge issue in cities with substantial legacy costs.
Concerning natural replacement rates, there is a striking variance among Rust Belt cities. Lower rates make the net out-migration problem more acute.
Overall, I think the net migration numbers tend to limit our thinking about how to make better cities. The population shift from Rust Belt to Sun Belt is dramatic, but the dominant narrative that folks such as Cox peddle won’t inform better policy. This is especially true if we insist on using state level data.
A good example is Texas, a big “vote with your feet” winner. A lot of good that’s done El Paso and other lesser-tier cities in the state. Houston, Dallas and Austin will Hoover up graduates from those places as well as the Rust Belt. They also suck up talent from the entire Sun Belt.
I think state policy is a red herring.
Migration, Properly Considered
In short, migration does matter. Any city that thinks it can be blasé about this is fooling themselves. On the other hand, surface numbers only tell us so much. We need to understand the dynamics going on underneath the hood.
This post originally appeared on January 7, 2010.
Sunday, July 24th, 2011
The Internal Revenue Service just released its benchmark place to place migration data for 2009. This tracks moves from county to county and state to state for people who filed tax returns between calendar year 2008 and 2009. My initial look at the data confirms what other sources such that Current Population Survey have shown, namely that migration has slowed during the Great Recession. I’m going to cheat though and not actually show much of that despite my enticing title, and instead illustrate a few other points the come out from this data.
As I’ve said before, this data is a gold mine of information. Few people seem to use it though, probably because it is so cumbersome to work with for non-specialists. One of the biggest reasons I built my Telestrian system was to create a platform that would actually make this data usable for me. It is by far the best system I’ve ever seen for analyzing this data. And not only is it better, it’s cheaper. Just to get the IRS to ship you the full data set – in the form of over 3,000 Excel spreadsheet I might add – is $650 dollars, but you can get access to to it via Telestrian for only $49/year.
(If you are a researcher or other person who would be interested in getting a complete copy of the data in a file format that is ready to import into a database, email me. In addition to the base IRS files in a usable form, I’ve created a full matrix of in, out, gross, and net migration for people (exemptions), households (returns), income (AGI), household size (exemptions/return), and household income (AGI/return) for not just county-county and state-state, but also MSA-MSA and MSA-state for years 1996-2010. This is about 2 million rows per migration type, plus there are dozens of other summary statistics available from the files).
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some interesting things. I’d previously showed a chart of gross migration between Chicago and other major Midwest metros. Gross migration is one of the better measures of true human capital circulation between cities, and indicates which metros have the tightest talent linkages with Chicago. Here’s the update for 2000-2009 (note that year 2001 is people who moved between 2000-2001, so that’s why that’s the base year. This applies to all the charts and data).
You can see here the generally slowing migration I alluded to earlier in the 2009 data series though in some cases it’s still higher than the dot com recession earlier in the decade. The gap between St. Louis in Columbus is quite large as you can see. Clearly, certain nearby cities, as expected, have greater flows and thus are in a way better connected to Chicago.
You might be wondering what the net flows are. I’m glad you asked. Here’s the totals:
Unsurprisingly, struggling Detroit and Cleveland lead the list for inbound migrants. Looking at this chart, I also can’t help but wonder if the high net flows from Chicago to Indianapolis is what enables Indy to maintain a slight population growth lead over places like Columbus that are also rapidly growing in general.
Of course, people is one thing, but you might suggest that it is the high talent individuals that matter more for a city’s economic future. The IRS doesn’t measure that directly, but it does give data on income. You could potentially use this as a proxy. Here is a chart showing total income (AGI) flows:
Note that this data is in thousands, so in this case Detroit actually sent over the last decade households that earn $400 million per year. The total income lost over the decade actually is far higher, because as I note, that’s per year income, so we should really look at it on a total accumulated loss basis perhaps, but I didn’t calculate that for now.
That’s total dollars, but what about the income per person? We can’t quite get there, but we can look at the average per household (i.e., tax return). If we do that, here’s what we see:
Now there are some limits to this data. The annual values are arithmetic means. Probably median would be better, but that data is not available. Also, to save time I used a straight average of the annual values, when probably some type of weighted average would have been better. But as a quick look, this is fine. What it shows is that with the exception of Indianapolis, Chicago is losing higher income people to other cities. Again, I’d caution to do a more rigorous calc before reading too much into this.
The Indianapolis case is interesting. It is a high net importer, but is importing lower income households than it is exporting, which is contrary to the other cities. I took at look at the disaggregated inbound and outbound flows quickly, and it looks like the households going back and forth between Indy and Chicago are lower income than those of any other city. Plenty to explore here.
Again, you start looking at this and the possibilities for serious research are endless, but alas, we’ve only got time for a blog post.
What Type of City Are You?
Another interesting thing jumped out at me when looking at cities. It is the migration pattern differences between the large tier one cities and smaller regional cities. Let’s illustrate this by showing the top 10 sources of gross migration (circulation) for Chicago and Indianapolis. Here’s Chicago:
|1||New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA||8,819||8,603||8,409||8,260||9,117||9,478||8,991||9,572||9,685||80,934|
|2||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA||9,041||8,540||8,439||8,510||8,052||8,327||8,146||8,358||7,902||75,315|
|5||Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI||7,001||6,586||5,955||5,901||6,241||6,634||6,528||6,562||6,180||57,588|
|6||Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||6,929||5,750||5,283||5,272||5,616||6,159||6,163||6,206||5,955||53,333|
|7||Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA||5,931||6,101||5,237||5,309||5,574||5,665||5,781||5,697||5,050||50,345|
|10||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||5,721||5,429||5,199||4,878||5,019||5,251||5,216||5,327||5,091||47,131|
And here is Indianapolis:
|6||Terre Haute, IN||1,791||1,620||1,807||1,606||1,871||1,611||1,546||1,756||1,694||15,302|
|7||Fort Wayne, IN||1,644||1,552||1,415||1,423||1,641||1,737||1,633||1,756||1,664||14,465|
Interesting, isn’t it? While Chicago does exchange people with regional cities, it also has a lot of circulation with other national and tier one cities, including it’s top two of New York and LA. Indianapolis, by contrast, apart from its huge circulation with Chicago seems to primarily recirculate people within Indiana. Its human capital networks are much more parochial.
New York City
I thought I would also take a quick look at New York metro. Here’s a map of net migration from 2000-2009 using a five bucket sort with separate positive and negative gradients:
It looks like New York is drawing in from the Heartland while exporting everywhere else, though the magnitude of the imports is far less than the exports. This is not surprising given that New York is well known for very large net out migration. (This is not necessarily nearly as bad a thing as it is frequently made out to be, as I explained here).
I’ve also read a lot about income migration from New York, so thought I’d throw that up. Here are the top ten places New York imports income from. Again, this data is in thousands and the cavet that this is not a total accumulated gain/loss applies:
|4||St. Louis, MO-IL||14,706||4,064||18,140||5,696||5,728||-14,400||9,811||16,568||26,365||86,678|
|7||Ann Arbor, MI||7,171||-1,867||-1,721||-4,718||6,062||2,824||12,527||20,105||-1,356||39,027|
|10||Kansas City, MO-KS||32,966||-2,018||-6,633||-2,593||-2,244||-2,827||8,343||8,852||1,645||35,491|
Here’s the bottom ten:
|1||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL||-489,537||-637,986||-488,454||-656,464||-921,299||-749,266||-656,371||-578,875||-319,368||-5,497,620|
|6||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||-141,225||-150,747||-158,583||-172,940||-252,097||-244,928||-157,668||-139,623||-53,674||-1,471,485|
|8||Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA||-65,596||-86,237||-80,997||-118,411||-171,883||-221,298||-246,739||-165,034||-83,497||-1,239,692|
|9||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA||-123,833||-153,255||-117,068||-149,971||-150,245||-123,540||-125,267||-131,519||-3,222||-1,077,920|
|10||Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC||-18,899||-44,940||-46,497||-83,099||-118,675||-126,562||-179,474||-146,129||-69,665||-833,940|
Miami says thanks. No two ways about it, New York metro is exporting a lot of income. For those who are interested, you can download the full matrix of net AGI flows for New York.
Like I said, there’s some seriously interesting stuff in here, and I plan to keep digging into the new data for quite a while, so stay tuned. For more of what you can do with this, click here.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
[ If I had to pick just one blog in the world as the best, I would probably choose Detroitblog. The writer, who goes by the handle Detroitblogger John, captures the stories of the people of Detroit in a way that I’ve never seen in another place. His posts are always full of pictures, because if you couldn’t see it for yourself, you’d never believe it.
Someone once insightfully said that one of the key distinguishing features of Detroitblog is that it resolutely refuses to treat the people of Detroit as hopeless victims, no matter their circumstances. Last year I was pleased to be able to share an example of this in a repost of Solitary Man, about someone who decided to face the challenges of his life and city head on by going “off the grid.” Today I’m delighted to be able to share another example of what you’ll find over at Detroitblog – Aaron. ]
They stagger in one by one — each with a story, each with a life of problems.
First comes the prostitute. Then comes a drinker. Every swing of the door brings another desperate person from the street outside.
People with addictions, with diseases, people living on the street. And people who suffer from none of those things but who are just drawn to this strange place.
Some talk to each other; one or two are talking to themselves, or the air, or whatever demons they hear in their heads.
It’s Sunday morning. It’s time for church.
At Peacemakers International on Chene Street, a little storefront ministry not far south of I-94, the congregation doesn’t just help people who are addicts or poor or homeless. Those people are the congregation.
They come here because this place has taken in dozens of people fighting years of addiction and, somehow, they say, it has helped them get off drugs.
People like Tony Cusmano, 52, who gradually stole a quarter-million dollars from his family business to feed a cocaine habit before ending up behind bars. Like Shirley Robinson, 53, who gave up a career and a house for a coke habit, which became a crack habit that left her selling herself on this street for a few years. Like Coy Welch, 39, a longtime drinker who was found living under a bridge a couple months ago and was invited to come here.
And from this ragged crowd, the preacher emerges.
At first it’s hard to distinguish him from his flock. Steve Upshur is 62, and wears jeans and cowboy boots and a leather Harley jacket. His hair is long. So is his scraggly mustache. He’s a biker and looks like a biker.
He used to be an addict, so desperate he once puked up his methadone at a clinic and then got down on the ground to lap up the drug-soaked vomit. He’s been a dealer. He’s been jailed. He even got caught up in a bank robbery once.
His flock relates to him because he’s been where they are, because he’s done as much wrong in his life as they have in theirs, but more importantly because he’s someone who found a way out of that hell. He’s walked the walk. And because of that, he’s earned their trust, earned his post as father of the wayward.
“When you get into crack and prostitution, anything goes,” Upshur says. “A lot of these people will stuff people in trunks, kill people. I’ve had people confess murders in here. I’ve heard it all.”
More people arrive. A homeless man. A woman one misstep away from being there. An old lady with a scowling face, muttering to herself.
The services begin right on time. But there’s no prayer to start things off. No reading of the Bible. No sermon.
Instead, a high-tempo, old-time gospel song — “I Believe” by John P. Kee — blares from the stereo. And as the beat kicks in, everyone in the pews who had been sitting quietly suddenly gets up and starts clapping along. A few even dance.
Then the pastor says a few short words, but right away another song bursts out of the stereo, and the congregation is behaving like it’s some kind of dance party. People who were living on the street or still are, people selling themselves there, people crippled by drug and drinking problems, are all dancing together, looking like they haven’t had this kind of fun in years. It’s an astonishing sight.
And just when it seems this can’t possibly be the actual service, it turns out that’s this is indeed how it goes at Peacemakers. Down here on Chene, going to Sunday service is almost like going to a party where, for a couple hours, the weight of everyone’s troubled past falls away.
“It’s just upbeat, you know?” Upshur says. “This isn’t a dead place where everybody’s sitting there. That ain’t the way a church is supposed to be.”
Chene Street is a disaster. The rows of burned-out storefronts between the empty blocks are reminders of how bustling it once was. But after the riot, after the freeway and an auto plant split the neighborhood in half, after everyone packed up and moved away, almost everything just died off.
Pouring into the void left behind were outcasts and cast-asides — junkies and drunks, hookers and drug dealers, the mentally ill and the physically disabled. Like a few other areas of the city, it became a refuge of the underclass, a home for everyone with nowhere else to go, where they can wander freely without being chased away by store owners, or told to move along by the cops.
“It’s like the devil’s playground,” says John Simon, a minister here. “I mean, you got sexual acts in the middle of the day, shooting dope, smoking dope. Everything you can imagine is going on down here.”
This is the world in which Peacemakers established itself in 1994. In many ways it’s a typical inner-city, grass-roots church. The services are nondenominational and loose. And like any Christian ministry, the place seeks to create believers and followers in Jesus, though they give food and clothing to anyone who comes here, whether they profess a belief in God or not.
But something’s happening here that draws the people who work or live on the streets outside. Just about every member swears that sometime after they came here, there was a moment when everything changed for them, when their addictions simply vanished. Whether what took place for them was spiritual or psychological, whether the catalyst was from inside or out, the simple program offered here, they say, helped alter their lives. It’s not a 12-step program, more a strict combination of work, prayer and study that uses religious belief to shield against the temptation for an addict to return to their old life.
Maybe Peacemakers gives a template to people who’ve never had a code of behavior to guide them. Maybe some people just need a strict system of rules to follow. Either way, its members insist that this place works.
A whole system has evolved to support them, a virtual safety net in a neighborhood that never really had one. The church operates halfway houses for ex-cons and ex-prostitutes, set up gardens for flowers and vegetables, and keeps a chicken coop for eggs. It all goes to the neighborhood. And every day they give out food and clothes.
This place is often the last resort for neighborhood people whose choices or circumstances left them living on the lowest rungs. The program offered here is powerful and appealing because it’s so simple.
“The main thing is a sincere desire to find God and get your life together, and a willingness to stick to the rules,” says Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor’s 32-year-old son.
Those rules require members to be sober, to pray together and to participate in helping the poor by feeding, clothing and working to get them off the streets. But a stated belief in Jesus is not enough to stay here. They have to demonstrate those convictions with the people of Chene Street.
“It’s a hard ministry. The hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my entire life is to be a Christian,” Simon says of the work involved. “But it’s the most fulfilling.”
After Peacemakers opened, the street people out front saw their old friends suddenly sober, talking about this crazy church that’s feeding and clothing them and helping them get clean, even if sometimes it doesn’t last, and they began showing up out of curiosity. Soon, its reputation took on a life of its own, and strange things started happening.
“We would have fires in this giant fire pit back there, and people would be coming in, throwing their syringes in, throwing their crack pipes in, just giving it all up,” Simon says. “It was mind-blowing.”
The pastor got here the long, hard way. He was a juvenile delinquent who became a teenage heroin addict. Petty crimes grew into bigger ones until he found himself nodding off at the wheel of a bank robbery getaway car one afternoon in the early ’70s in Detroit’s suburbs, just as the cops swarmed in. He barely escaped lengthy prison time for it.
He fled Detroit but kept his lifestyle. While in an Oklahoma jail in the early ’70s for some minor offense, an inmate told him these born-again Christians had a place nearby, and they could be easily suckered into giving you food and shelter. “So I’m thinking, ‘Well, go get me a sandwich; I’ll go hustle them for a sandwich,’” Upshur says.
But he was drawn in by their approach. “These people are talking to Jesus like he’s their buddy, and I grew up you’d have to probably be a priest or a nun to be talking firsthand to the main man,” says Upshur, who was raised Catholic. “I’m thinking this is deep. All of a sudden — boom! — this spiritual world opens up. I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
He was so inspired, he came back to Detroit at 25 years old, determined to stay clean, and started holding informal prayer meetings at a house next to his parents’ home to talk about spirituality or God or whatever anyone wanted.
At the first gathering, his audience was a bunch of teenagers who came less to hear another born-again and more to see the crazy bank robber. A week later, he had 35 kids there. Soon after, adults started showing up too.
The group kept growing and went from a house to an old, unused church in Detroit, and eventually to a church in St. Clair Shores with three pastors and a large middle-class congregation. Upshur preached out there for 16 years.
But he felt the pull of skid row. “That’s always where my heart was, ’cause I come out of that,” he says. “I grew up in the inner city, I’ve been homeless many of the years of my life, been in and out of jail all my life, a very rough life. Those were my main people that I grew up with. So when I got, quote, ‘saved,’ I knew I’d be back working with people that come out of my environment.”
A woman in the suburban church offered him a small old building on Chene that she owned, and he began his ministry in one of the city’s most miserable, drug-addled neighborhoods. “We take people who everybody else has given up on,” Bob Kaczmarek says. He’s a board member of the church, 64, a Catholic, a well-dressed attorney. He attends services elsewhere, but was so impressed by Peacemakers and its ragged flock he became involved.
“This is it,” he says. “For some of the people who are in the in-house programs, this is their last chance. And if they don’t make it here, then you find out they’re found dead somewhere.”
There have to be at least 100 stuffed animals inside the bedrooms at the Mercy House.
Several women stay here right now, at the Peacemakers’ halfway house for those trying to escape a life of prostitution and drugs, or battered women trying to escape a violent man. Blocks away, there’s a halfway house for men out of prison, off the streets, just off drugs.
What’s striking about the women’s house are the delicate, feminine, almost child-like touches. Though the women here have led hard lives, there’s pink and softness everywhere — on the stuffed animals, in the decorations on the walls, on the clothes inside the closets. It’s as if the women here are trying to reclaim an innocence they lost years ago. Denise Benn walks into her bedroom, bounces onto her bed and grabs a blue stuffed dog. “I got this puppy I took care of right before I came in here, and it made me feel young again, ’cause I could take care of something,” the 43-year-old says, hugging it.
Benn’s history is written on her face. Her story is like one many of the women here tell. Her life collapsed at 12, she says, when she was gang raped by six men on the way to school. Soon after, she started doing drugs to bury the trauma, hanging out with the dropouts and the druggies because they were nicer to her than anyone else.
“I liked getting high,” she says. “People accepted me. I wasn’t part of my family because I didn’t get along with my family. But now I was part of something.”
By 16, she was pole dancing in Detroit strip clubs, strung out on heroin, and within a couple years she went from turning tricks in VIP rooms to doing so in cars.
Her life as a street prostitute was one harrowing night after another.
“Every day something horrific was happening to me,” she says. “I was either getting thrown out of moving cars or waking up with people’s hands on my throat, and I had a heroin addiction and I couldn’t stop. I mean, you should see the scars on my body. I’m not lying to you. I’ve had some horrific stuff happen to me.”
The women here — five right now — watch out for each other, keep each other’s spirits up when things look bleak and the street outside begins appearing appealing again. They travel in twos when they walk the neighborhood, and eat group dinners, and help out at the church together.
“I got a new way of life,” Benn says. “I’m productive here and I’m of use here. I’ve got a place here.”
But there are relapses here too.
Last spring she violated the rules against dating someone at a nearby halfway house for men, and, forced to leave, wound up back on the streets, living in an abandoned building.
“The first night I went there, I just cried, because I knew what was going to happen,” Benn says. She fell right back into drugs and prostitution. “I didn’t have nowhere to go. I didn’t have no resources. I didn’t have a dime in my pocket.”
Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor’s son, came looking for her and asked her to come back. Now she works for the church and tries to figure out how to build a new life. She has no money, can’t even get past a minimum-wage job interview because of the long gap in her work history, and has few skills other than the ones she picked up on the streets. It makes it tough to stay hopeful, challenging to remain on the path she’s trying to follow.
“It’s hard,” Benn says, dragging on a cigarette. “It’s really hard.”
It all comes down to a single moment, they say. A line between their old life and their new one. And they all say it like they still half can’t believe it actually happened.
It happened to Simon too. He tells his story as he wanders the aisles at Joseph’s Storehouse, the church’s resale shop in Warren that he runs. This is where the church gets what little money it has — selling cheap things one or two at a time.
Simon, at left, is one of Peacemakers’ biggest proponents because he’s one of its biggest successes.
He’d already spent half a life on heroin, a habit he began at 15, when he first came here.
“I must’ve did $400, $500 worth of heroin every day, ’cause that was my daily do,” he says. “My lottery habit was a hundred and something a day, the cocaine I used to give out for free was hundreds a day. I literally had tons of weed. I was hooked up with these Cubans and Colombians in Florida. And I was the dope man, so I had some of the finest women God put breath in. I was out of my mind. It was just a big party continuously.”
He got conned into coming to Peacemakers by a concerned sister who’d heard this place seems to work when everything else fails.
Simon walked in, thinking he’d bail after a minute, but he found a remarkable scene that had him transfixed.
“First time I went down there, I just felt something,” he says. “Jeremiah, the pastor’s son, was standing in the middle of the kitchen with all these dope fiends and prostitutes just standing in a circle around him. And I knew these people ’cause I used to be down on Chene.”
Simon started attending services, but kept showing up wasted. He had to take $100 worth of heroin just to get into the door without being sick. He was listening to the spiritual messages but not the sobriety ones.
“I always heard you get saved and the ground’s gonna shake and lightning bolts, and I didn’t feel nothing. I shook his hand, went out in the car and got high,” he says, laughing.
One day, much to Simon’s discomfort, Upshur called him to the floor in the middle of the service. Simon had three bottles of methadone in his pocket. He was able to get them even while he was on heroin because the lady who ran the clinic would, for $5, give addicts a cup of her teenage daughter’s urine so they could pass the drug test and get their fix. That was her hustle on the side. She kept them addicted for $5 here and there.
The pastor asked Simon if he wanted to finally be free of drugs. Simon nervously said yes, pulled out the bottles and set them on the pulpit in an act of renouncement. The addicts in the audience started drooling over them.
“You know the crowd on Chene,” he says. “I heard, ‘Don’t do it, John! I’ll buy it!’ People were serious. These are drug addicts in the crowd. Each bottle could be $50 or more on the street. There’s people literally hollering like it’s an auction. They want my drugs.”
Like so many others here, from the pastor on down, he insists the spirit entered into him that day and his addiction vanished right then and there. No withdrawals, no cravings. That was 12 years ago.
“I went to meetings, NA, AA, methadone clinics, whatever they have. Nothing worked for me,” he says. Now he’s a minister here trying to do the same for others who come in. “God set me free that day. Everything stopped that day.”
Jada Fields sits alone in a pew on a Sunday morning, staring forward without an expression. And tears are streaming down her face.
She was a crack-smoking prostitute working Chene down the street from the church, waiting for johns to pick her up one day, and Upshur called her over. She told him flat-out what she was doing. He offered her money to instead come inside. “I’ve been here ever since,” Fields says. She has nine children, seven grandchildren. She’s 39.
That was eight years ago, eight years of relapses, of going back to the streets and then being welcomed back to Peacemakers. This time she’s lasted a year here.
Behind her, a man stands there alone, and he too is crying to himself. Across the room, moments later, a man has his face buried in his hands, in tears or in shame.
This happens early in their newfound sobriety, some here will say, when the remorse of a wasted life sinks in. There’s joy in starting over, but there’s deep sadness too over all the time that’s been lost forever. Sometimes the realization is overwhelming.
But now a song interrupts their sorrow as the service begins. Once again the song is gospel, so raw it has no music backing it at all, only a quick beat driven by foot stomps and a tambourine, and carried by the raspy voice of its impassioned singer.
Everyone rises and starts clapping along. Some dance or jump up and down in place. An elderly man shadowboxes the air for lack of another way to express his emotions. A few people come to the front and start dancing in tandem, like they’re doing the Hustle. The party’s on.
As each song fades away, Upshur says a few things into a microphone. They’re not so much religious exhortations, more like a pep talk. “Now we know we all come out of different backgrounds, all kinds of craziness, we all got a story to tell,” he tells them. They shout in agreement. His manner is gentle, his tone is soothing. No yelling, no fiery eyes. “But we’re gonna help one another cross that finish line, whatever it takes. We’re draggin’ one another through them pearly gates!”
Though the Gospels will be read aloud toward the end, though there’s no doubt this is a religious gathering, the services here are more like a celebration of everyone’s escape from their own hell, whether they’ve done it yet or are still trying. It’s a sing- and dance-along that, more than anything, is meant to cheer up people who’ve had little to smile about.
“Let’s have a knock-down, drag-out for Jesus!” Upshur shouts excitedly as everyone starts dancing to another song. “Let it all hang out!”
Every week, the service stops midway through for a hug break, of all things. But it’s actually more striking than corny. Few who come here have families, most have few real friends. So prostitutes turn to hug alcoholics with tremors, and the mentally ill embrace the homeless. Five minutes of everyone melting into each other’s arms.
Kaczmarek thinks back to something he saw recently at one of the services. “One fellow got up and said he was thankful because, for the first time in his memory, he feels that he has a family, that he is loved, that he is able to love others who will receive it. From my perspective, that was the best moment of the evening to hear something like that.”
These troubled people, holding onto each other in this little room in the ghetto, have created their own, safe protected world here, where they can have friends who won’t pull drugs out of their pocket or have liquor on their breath. They’re convinced something miraculous can happen to them here, even if it takes a bank-robbing preacher and a flock of addicts and hookers to help them do it.
“It all works somehow,” Kaczmarek says, smiling. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
I’ve written before about how the privatization of the Indiana Toll Road was a grand slam home run for the public (see “Australian and Spanish Investors Hurting, Hoosier Taxpayers Smiling,” “Major Moves is Majorly Great“, and “The Shrewdness of Mitch Daniels.” The Chicago Skyway lease was similarly great). The evidence just keeps rolling in for how great this deal was, this week in the form of a Bloomberg News piece (via the Indianapolis Business Journal) describing how the Toll Road concessionaires are missing financial projections bigtime.
Eleven million trucks. That’s how many 18-wheelers needed to rumble across northern Indiana in 2010 for the state’s 157-mile toll road to break even. Unfortunately, only about half that many did and the road came up $209 million short. This sounds like the beginning of yet another story about recession-ravaged states bleeding cash. And it is, sort of. The twist is that the Indiana Toll Road is managed not by the state, but by a group of corporate investors…Now five years old, the Indiana deal has yet to turn a profit, or break even…..It turned out to be a bargain for the taxpayers of Indiana.
$209 million per year. That’s how far short of original projections the Toll Road is performing. The good news for Indiana taxpayers is that this is not their problem. The state already has the money in the bank. Regardless of income, the concessionaire still has to maintain the road to standards. (In fact, they are in the middle of a lengthy project to reconstruct and widen several miles of the road through Gary). And if the concessionaire goes bankrupt, presumably their lenders will take over and still be on the hook. In any event, if there’s a default on the contract, the state can take the road back. They could even lease it again for even more money.
I don’t see how it would have been physically possible for the state to have gotten this good a deal itself. In effect, the vendor way overpaid at the peak of the bubble. (I wouldn’t worry too much about them – they are big boys who no doubt syndicated away much of the risk and who also have a big portfolio across which to diversity the unexpected wins and losses). Could Indiana have conceivably negotiated even stronger protections? Sure. It could have negotiated in that if the Borman were closed for flooding or something, motorists could drive the Toll Road for free. But even with compensation the state has had to pay in a few borderline cases like this, it is still way, way ahead.
I don’t think it’s possible to get a deal like that today, not with the way the markets have turned. But with massive transport investment deficits looming across the country, finding ways to tap into private capital, management, and operating expertise is still very much something cities and states should be looking to do. These can be risky deals if done poorly. But done right, and with the proper public scrutiny, they hold enormous potential.
Thursday, July 7th, 2011
I have posted quite a few “city videos” in the course of blogging. These are usually unofficial short pieces, often art projects, and frequently featuring time lapse, tilt shift, or other techniques to produce a very cool “music video” about a particular place. I thought I’d share a compilation of some of the coolest and very best of these today. If you have other suggestions, please post a link as a comment.
A lot of these are high quality uploads that more than justify watching them in full screen mode. Enjoy!
You’ve Got to Love London
This one was an instant classic (if the video doesn’t display, click here).
Le Flâneur (Paris)
Here’s a variant on the time lapse approach (if the video doesn’t display, click here). The creator of this video discussed his techniques over at National Geographic, but alas the post seems to have expired (or I can’t find it).
Little Big Berlin
This is such an incredible video. It doesn’t necessarily beat you over the head with the coolness of the place like the London and Paris videos, but instead gives you slices of everyday life in way that reveals the city to you. Even the classical soundtrack (Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2″) is awesome. (If the video doesn’t display click here).
Le Tour de France Grand Départ 2010 (Rotterdam)
This one actually is a promotional video, shot for the Grand Départ of the 2010 Tour de France. But it’s a great video about cycling and Rotterdam generally. This one I particularly love since the music is a delightful original composition by Erwin Steijlen, featuring vocals by Alma Nieto and Steve Balsamo. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
Inter // States (Tokyo)
This video by Samuel Cockedey isn’t as good as the rest of them on the whole, but if you’re a transport geek like me, you’ll definitely like it (if the video doesn’t display, click here).
New York City
The best of the city videos all seem to be from overseas cities (though interestingly the London and Paris ones were made by Americans). Here are a couple of great New York timelapses, however. First, one from James Ogle (if the video doesn’t display, click here).
And one by Mindrelic called “Manhattan in Motion” (if the video doesn’t display, click here).
A Summer Sped Up (Chicago)
Here’s a reader suggestion that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before since I live in Chicago at present. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
Hope you enjoyed these.