Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Race Matters In Milwaukee – Part 1B: How Segregated Is Milwaukee? (con’t) by Nathaniel Holton

[ You can read Part 1A of this series here. ]

It turns out that Milwaukee is not the most segregated metro area after all.


Racial Map of Milwaukee



Racial Map of Detroit


(Both graphics by Eric Fisher)


The landmark report on segregation by the U.S Census Bureau published five measure of segregation. As previously discussed, this report ranked metro areas with a sufficiently large black population on how racially segregated they were. Then, the U.S Census Bureau averaged these rankings, and used that average to conclude that Milwaukee was the most segregated metro area in the country.

After all of the sophisticated statistical analysis that went into the production of the five segregation measures, it is surprising that the U.S Census Bureau would produce an overall segregation rank by averaging the segregation measure ranks, and not the measures themselves. As the following example shows, this distorts things.

Imagine three people whose wealth is measured in three different ways. You want to rank them in overall wealth by averaging their wealth from each measurement. In parenthesis below is the rank of how wealthy each person is compared to the other two people.

If you’re just averaging the money in each measurement, Aaron is the wealthiest person and would rank number one. But if you average the rankings, Brett’s average ranking (the average of 1, 1, and 2) is better than Aaron’s average ranking (the average of 1, 2, and 2).

Detroit is like Aaron. It has the worst segregation measures, but not the worst average ranking. Milwaukee is like Brett. We do not have the worst segregation measures, but we do have the worst average ranking.

When the segregation measures are standardized and averaged, Detroit comes out as the most segregated metro area in the country. Milwaukee comes out at number two. Here are the top five segregated metro areas using this way to measure:

The U.S Census Bureau may have had a good reason for going with their method. And, none of this changes the fact that Milwaukee is highly segregated, and that this remains a central challenge to our future. There’s little excitement in knowing that Milwaukee is “second only to Detroit” in yet another measure of socioeconomic health. At the same time, the stigma of being the most segregated place in the country is a damaging one. As it turns out, it’s not necessarily legitimate.

Sometime next year, the 2010 Census should be completed and we will be able to see how Milwaukee stacks up in segregation and many other areas. In the meantime, it is still important to look at the impact that segregation has on our health and our future.

This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Detroit, Milwaukee

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Remembering 9/11

The Falling Man by Richard Drew, image via Wikipedia. You can read Tom Junod’s essay on this photo at Esquire.

On 9/11 I was at O’Hare airport, waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Denver. In fact, the plane was boarding, and right as I handed my boarding pass to the agent, I was told that there would be a delay in anyone else getting on the plane. Milling around the gate, I saw a group of people gathered around the CNN Airport monitor so I took a look at saw President Bush walking away from a podium. I asked someone what was up and they told me a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.

At this point the TV was shut off. I wandered around to various gates trying to find a monitor that was working, but every TV in the public areas of the airport was shut off. So I walked down to a bar, hoping they’d have their own TV, and sure enough there was CNN with the mind boggling pictures of the WTC engulfed in flames and smoke. I remember thinking to myself, “I can only see one tower. Where’s the other one?” I couldn’t believe a building like that could just be gone. A few minutes later the second tower collapsed live in front of me, and I could believe it then.

At this point I decided that I’d better get the heck out of the airport before the whole thing was put on lockdown and I wasn’t allowed to leave. So I went back to the garage and drove home to Evanston and spent the rest of the day like most Americans – glued to the TV set.

There’s not much I can add to what has already been said about this event, but on the one day of the year in which we generally allow ourselves to look back at the pictures and video of the reality of what happened on that day, I too will post a few photos as a reminder. Yes, these are graphic, but so was what happened then. I’ll only post handful. They are enough.

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Indy: Help Keep the Historic “Georgia St.” Name

The city of Indianapolis has a fantastic project under way downtown to take several lanes of Georgia St. away from cars and give them to people between the convention center and Conseco Fieldhouse. I hope to profile this prominently when complete because I think it’s another great leading edge public space example from the city – one that would be getting a lot more airplay if it were in a city that were more on the urbanist radar.

But there’s one aspect of this that’s not so great – a plan to rename Georgia St. Oddly, the backers of this don’t actually have a name in mind. They just want to chuck the existing one and are doing a design by committee on a new name. The one suggestion I’ve seen floated publicly, Hospitality Way, it utterly cringe-worthy and shows that while improving on a solid, historic name like Georgia St. would be difficult, picking something far worse will be depressingly easy. It would be a shame to have such a fantastic multi-million dollar public space project marred by having the city become a laughingstock to the nation by picking a goofy name.

You can help, however. There’s a survey out you can take in which you can give your opinion. I strongly encourage you to visit this survey and say that Georgia St. should stay. Here’s a link: Georgia St. Renaming Survey. Of course, if you don’t legitimately believe this, I would tell you to say what you really think. But it doesn’t take much to imagine how this renaming might go very badly.

There is also a Facebook page to “Keep Historic Georgia St.” you can join. They have news and additional suggestions for how you can take action. Lest you wonder, this is indeed a historic name, dating back to the original Ralston Plan plat of the city. And back in July the Indianapolis Business Journal ran a story on this planned change in which Yours Truly was quoted.

Of course, not all is lost from this renaming. It has spawned plenty of interesting suggestions. My favorite so far was someone who said, “They could call it Peyton Manning Way, then shut it down for construction the rest of the season….”

Friday, September 9th, 2011

LA Light

Here’s another pretty cool city time lapse, this one of Los Angeles. But before we get there, a reader recently sent me a link to a Vimeo channel called “Cities in Minutes” which has almost 80 more time lapses and such. I can’t claim to have watched them all, but it looks like there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there.

If the video below doesn’t display, click here.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Los Angeles

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Race Matters In Milwaukee – Part 1A: How Segregated Is Milwaukee? by Nathaniel Holton

[ Over the next few weeks I’m going to be presenting an important series called “Race Matters in Milwaukee.” Written by Nathaniel Holton, this series originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum. Here is the first installment, which examines the question of how segregated Milwaukee actually is – Aaron. ]


9/27/2010 update: When properly standardizing and averaging the U.S Census Bureau’s five published segregation measures, Milwaukee goes from being the most segregated metro area to the second most segregated metro area, behind Detroit. Read more.

Milwaukee is a wonderfully diverse city full of unique cultures and a broad array of worldviews and life experiences. But like many cities, these cultures and worldviews are too often walled off from one another due to the effects of segregation. Such segregation, and the racial climate that is part and parcel to it, create challenges and inertia that reach every significant issue that the city ever faces. Issues of citizen empowerment, education, economic development, poverty, public service levels, and countless others are all intimately impacted by the state of Milwaukee’s racial climate. The poor racial climate makes collective action difficult and sometimes impossible, burdens business attraction, fosters brain drain, and reduces quality of life in the entire region. If it doesn’t improve, the city’s potential will forever be constrained. While there’s commendable activity taking place at the individual and grassroots level to improve racial climate, civic leadership in this fundamentally important area tends to be absent.

Residential segregation is a worthwhile starting point when examining Milwaukee racial climate and what can be done to improve it. The following is the first in a multi-part series that will take a look at the prevalence and impact of segregation in the Milwaukee area. The meaning of segregation, its causes and effects, how it can be addressed, and how it impacts racial climate are all issues that will be examined in this series.

It’s commonly accepted that Milwaukee is very segregated, but how segregated is it really? First, most information on this involves not the City of Milwaukee itself, but rather the Milwaukee Metropolitan Statistical Area (“metro Milwaukee”), a region that includes the entire counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. Second, there are lots of ways to measure segregation, and it’s not easy to tell which measures are better than others. Third, the mainstream measures of segregation can only handle two races at a time. The publicized segregation claims tend to involve only white and black populations, excluding Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans entirely.

So when it is said that “Milwaukee is the X most segregated city in the country,” what is really meant is that “the area comprised of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties is the X most segregated area in the country when it comes to black and white residential patterns based on some measurement of uncertain quality.”

Maybe the most respected measures of segregation are drawn out in a study done by the U.S Census Bureau. This study focused on five measures of segregation: dissimilarity, isolation, delta, absolute centralization, and spatial proximity (for descriptions of these measures, see U.S Census study, pages 8-10).

The study analyzed data from the 2000 census, compared metro areas that had a large enough minority population to analyze, and then ranked these metro areas in terms of segregation, with a ranking of 1 being the most segregated. The following table displays metro Milwaukee’s segregation rankings in terms of black/white segregation and Hispanic/white segregation. It also shows metro Detroit’s black/white segregation rankings for context. Metro Milwaukee did not have a large enough Asian-American or Native-American population for analysis, so there aren’t rankings for those populations.

Metro Milwaukee Metro Detroit
black/white Hispanic/white black/white
Dissimilarity 2 8 1
Isolation 8 21 2
Delta 1 15 12
Absolute Centralization 10 22 13
Spatial Proximity 6 8 1
AVERAGE 1 12 2

There is a user-friendly website that focuses on the dissimilarity index. This website ranks metro Milwaukee 3rd, behind Detroit and Gary, IN in the black/white category.

In response to the U.S Census rankings, researchers from UWM created their own ranking system based on the number of blocks in an area that had populations that were both at least 20% black and 20% white. They created their rankings “not as a competitive model for ranking cities and metro areas, but to expose the biases and limitations of the segregation indexes” (which they describe in their report). Metro Milwaukee ranks 43rd in this ranking system, substantially better than its rank in any of the Census’ measures.

The publication of the UWM report created an impassioned debate, with various individuals and groups coming out in support of or in opposition to UWM’s rankings. Marc Levine, a highly respected UWM social scientist, slammed the UWM report as “a blend of shoddy research and specious analysis” in an op-ed that systematically critiqued the report. John Gurda, Milwaukee’s foremost historian, wrote that the UWM report confirmed his firmly held impression that Milwaukee was “somewhere in the middle of the pack” when it comes to integration.

When the UWM report questioned the severity of metro Milwaukee’s segregation, some politicians and business leaders took this as an opportunity to gloss over the area’s racial issues for the purposes of improving the city’s image, an image that consistently makes business and talent attraction difficult. Some black leaders expressed outrage at the UWM report and responded by citing racial disparities and using those disparities to reaffirm the victimization of the black community in Milwaukee. If the UWM report placed segregation into question, the response to the report left no question that the city’s racial climate is poor.

This spring, the 2010 census process will begin. The result will be an updated view of Milwaukee’s demographic and socioeconomic standing. This sharing of new information and insight will provide Milwaukee the perfect opportunity to reassess its level of segregation, what it means for us, and what can be done about it.

Confronting metro segregation is critical, as Milwaukee’s economy spans across municipal and county borders. Action here involves heavy cooperation between the City of Milwaukee, its suburbs, surrounding counties, and the State of Wisconsin. Historically, such cooperation has been difficult to sustain (to say the least).

Almost as importantly, Milwaukee must examine the level of segregation that exists in the city itself. Such segregation works to frustrate cooperation and unity of purpose amongst the city’s population. As a result, the city often is not able to put up a united front when seeking action and cooperation with surrounding suburbs and the state. Before the City of Milwaukee can secure this cooperation, it first needs to get its own house in order.

This post originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on January 24, 2010.

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Replay: Chicago – A Declaration of Independence

[ It’s Labor Day weekend in the United States. I hope everyone enjoys. I’ll be back next week, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with this early 2009 piece I used to kick off my year at looking at the centennial of the Burnham Plan of Chicago. While two and a half years later it certainly needs updating and I would make changes if writing it today, I think on the whole it holds up well and so am presenting it basically as was. I hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]

One might fear the degree to which the city had declared its independence from nature, but at the same time one could hardly help feeling wonder at its audacity.

Other cities soon had railroads and elevators and refrigerator cars as well, but it was Chicago that first revealed the importance of such things to the West.

- William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis

As promised, I commence my year of looking back at the Burnham Plan of Chicago on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. To set the stage, let us first take a look at Chicago – its present, past and future. And the fundamental challenge it faces that no one is talking about.

Change and Success in Chicago

Chicago is arguably America’s greatest modern day success story. From the troubled remains of a faded Rust Belt colossus, Chicago reinvented itself as a global city. Within just the last 15 years, the transformation of the city has been incredible to behold. Over 100 new skyscrapers pierce the skyline dating from the last decade. I visited Chicago as a kid in the 1970’s and took a picture from the Sears Skydeck to the northeast with my Instamatic. Looking at that photo today, it’s like the city is missing. The incredible growth in that period is undeniable.

The quantity of quality on display and available for consumption in the Chicago has blossomed beyond belief. There’s a stunning array of sophisticated and inventive restaurants, a far cry from even the mid-90’s when Chicago magazine proudly proclaimed Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba one of the city’s ten best. The city’s cultural institutions are top notch and innumerable galleries dot the urban core. The world’s design leaders have planted their flag in the city, with almost any high end furniture brand in the world readily available. Cutting edge fashion isn’t just available for purchase in Chicago – it’s being made there. Strips of decayed industrial areas have been reclaimed as shiny new shopping districts. A thriving in-city Home Depot does business where not too long ago hookers walked the streets in broad daylight – one of many major retail developments. A condo boom of epic proportions, probably the greatest of any city in America, turned vast tracts of the city into upscale playgrounds. The extent of this last matter simply cannot be understated. When I moved to Lincoln Park in 1992, people would look at you funny if you lived west of Racine. Today, condos sprout almost throughout the city, from the South Loop to Humboldt Park to Albany Park. Thousands upon thousands of units selling for hundreds of thousands each have been added to the city’s inventory each year. The Chicago of today is a far cry of the Chicago of 1992, when, upon occasion of a job interview, the company bragged about how Chicago was now an outpost of that uber-hip coffee shop chain Starbucks.

Global Chicago

How did this happen? Globalization happened. Globalization transformed Chicago. Just as the fall of the industrial age felled the Chicago of yesterday, the rise of globalization created the Chicago of today, the global city of Chicago. There are many theories of global cities, but the best known is probably Saskia Sassen’s. The Cliff Notes version goes something like this. As businesses became more globalized and more virtualized, this created demand for new types of financial products and producer services – notably in the law, accounting, consultancy, and marketing areas – to help businesses service and control these far flung networks. These financial and producer services are subject to clustering economics, and end up concentrated in a relatively small number of cities around the world. These global cities serve as control nodes for various global networks and key production sites for these services.

Chicago is one of these cities. Its legacy as a financial hub and business services center left it perfectly positioned. Thus it has made the transition to the global economy in a way that no other Midwestern city can claim, rising as high as #8 on some lists of top global cities. Where once Chicago was the king of the Midwest, ruling its agro-industrial hinterland from its lordly domain, today it turns its back to a Midwest increasingly failing or at best falling behind. In effect, Chicago has declared independence from the Midwest, and from its own past, betting that its future is better served articulating itself with the global economy and the league of global cities than in trying to hold on to a past or a region that seems increasingly obsolete.

A Tale of Two Cities

The way globalization has disconnected cities from their traditional hinterlands has been well-commented upon. Richard Longworth noted it in his recent book. Sassen speaks of how cities have become un-moored from their own city regions. Indeed, globalization is ripping cities themselves asunder, as the spate of articles in the last year talking about the Europeanization of American cities or a “great inversion” gives evidence – that is, a booming, prosperous core surrounded by an impoverished periphery.

Chicago has seen this too. There are increasingly two Chicago’s. One is the global city of Chicago, consisting of its urban core and selected upscale and business suburbs. This is where globalization’s winners live, work, and play. This is the land of the shiny skyscrapers and smart shops. This is the place where the nation’s highest sales tax, the nation’s highest real estate transfer tax and an ever greater array of fees designed to part residents from their money are complained about, but are more annoyance than threat. This is the Chicago tourists, conventioneers, and business travelers see.

Then there’s the other Chicago, made up of the impoverished minority neighborhoods, the traditional white ethnic enclaves, many inner ring burbs and outer exurbs. While some of them are populated with new immigrants who bubble with entrepreneurial zeal, others are home to the middle and working classes who are ever more squeezed in a Chicago that no longer seems to have a home for them. Even many locals of the other Chicago rarely see these places, except as glimpses caught from the freeway or a Metra train.

Put these two Chicago’s together and you get a metro area that, despite its impressive core, has rather unimpressive aggregate statistics. Last year the Chicago MSA grew by only 0.7% in population, less than the national average. While some central cities are seeing strong central city growth – much maligned Atlanta is up almost 17% since the last official Census, and it’s a local topic of conversation as to whether the city might flip from majority black to majority white – Chicago has flatlined. The Census Bureau estimates that the city’s population has actually declined since 2000 to the tune of 62,700 people. More ominously, Chicago is suffering out migration. While it remains in immigrant magnet, the influx of new international arrivals is more than offset by the departure of domestic migrants. Last year alone, the Chicago MSA had net domestic out-migration of 57,000 – about the same raw number of people as left Detroit. This is a pace of almost 600,000 people per decade choosing to leave Chicago. Chicago even has a problem with its Midwestern balance of trade in people. Between 2000 and 2005, it lost a net of about 7,000 to Indianapolis. The creative class is flocking, but it looks more and more like everyone else is leaving. This is where the argument about Chicago as success story starts to break down. Success for whom?

Public Policy Favors Global Chicago

In a manner counter-intuitive to common perception for a city and state controlled by Democrats, Chicago’s public policy actually favors the successful Chicago over the failing one. It has pursued a high tax, high service strategy to provide ever increasing public amenities to its upscale residents. The city built Millennium Park, de-converted State St. from a busway, spent hundreds of millions on a revamped Wacker Drive, has implemented many miles of streetscape improvements, with median planters, new streetlights, etc., has installed miles and miles of bike lanes and bike racks, and much more. The CTA is frequently derided (though I think the CTA is getting much better), but is an anomalous blip. Even where the city was not directly involved, we’ve seen an immense investment in public infrastructure, cultural facilities, etc.

The intellectual edifice for this is provided by people like Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory. Starting with the well known fact that any business needs a qualified labor force, his analysis suggests that cities are in a war for talent, trying to lure that fickle and demanding group of workers who constitute the essential labor force of the new economy. I’ve expressed sympathy to this notion in the past, noting the problems that smaller Midwestern cities have had in luring the educated to want to live in them. Yet I’m troubled as well. As applied by local leaders around the country, Florida’s theories are in practice like a left wing version of trickle down economics. But instead of supply side stimulus to business, the idea is to provide financial favors to artists, designers, and other members of the favored quarter of the intelligentsia in the belief that this will fuel the economic fires of a city in the globalized economy. The working classes, the non-creatives, form a sort of lumpen-proletariat in this worldview. They’re a hopeless case that it is nevertheless the duty of the creative class to figure out how to help. Even a more descriptive reporter like Richard Longworth notes that globalization needs lots of highly skilled workers, and lots of high school drop out type labor, but not much in between. This means that the middle class dream that Chicago once offered the immigrants who came to its shores will end up out of reach for many. They can be globalization’s coolie class, but not much more.

Clearly I am troubled by policies that cater only to the most privileged in society. But in a sense, what choice did Chicago have? It is easy to point at places like Kansas City or Charlotte or Atlanta and talk about their low cost of living, low taxes, booming job market, etc. But could Chicago have adopted policies to implement a similar environment? Clearly it could not. Its geography, history, and culture conspire to ensure it never could. Chicago will always have relatively bad traffic congestion, tax levels, housing prices, etc. Its selling point has always been that among cities that have those things, it was the big city that was more liveable in terms of them. Just as smaller cities sell the “big city amenities at with low costs and a great quality of life”, Chicago sold the same product at a higher level in the urban order (“almost as good as New York but so liveable and cheap”). While Chicago likes to act like it is a notch above those smaller cities, I’m always amazed how similar it is in a way. For example, just this month in CS, a luxury shopping and lifestyle magazine for the city, someone starts out an article with “When I mentioned Chicago to people on the coasts, their eyes widened with horror at everything they’d heard about the winters. Or they expressed disbelief that one cannot, in fact, see the other side of the lake. Or they tried to mask boredom as I explained that yes, the city is at times quite windy, but the nickname actually refers to a long history of bloviating politicians.” The details are different, but this article could have been written in Columbus, Ohio or almost any other Midwestern city. The narrative arc is identical. The desperation to seem like a member of the club is palpable, often in direct proportion to how much the author studiously avoids trying to act like it.

With cities like New York, London, etc. pouring huge amounts of money into civic upgrades, Chicago would have had to respond, if nothing else to retain its relative standing. And take a look around. Other than success on the dirt cheap, which again Chicago could never offer, it is difficult to find a successful model of a Midwestern city for Chicago to emulate. The global city approach, while certainly having its downsides, is as at least a model one can point to as having some success. Most others don’t even preserve the urban core, except as a regional civic gathering place sustained on enormous quantities of tax subsidies.

Beyond this, Chicago has always been a gambler’s city, one that wasn’t afraid to dream big, bet big, and double down when the pressure got tough. That’s one tradition the city has stuck to. And I believe Chicago has decided to make a very big bet indeed. Namely, that it is now growing beyond that Mini-Me version of New York into an elite global city in its own right. One where business feels compelled to plant its flag, one where people will pay any price, bear any burden for the privilege of living there, playing there, doing business there, etc. By raising sales taxes to 10.25% in the face of a declining economy, quadrupling parking meter rates in the teeth of a recession, Chicago is sending a powerful message about where it thinks it is. Time will tell if the city is right, but let it never be said that the city hasn’t put down the marker.

Chicago’s Challenges

But the critique of Chicago as an increasingly two-tier city and as a city whose taxes are too high is old hat. Many have made it. And the leadership of the city has clearly examined the issues in depth and made their decisions.

No, I’m not here just to recapitulate the standard critique of the global city. Rather, I intend to talk about two other ares where Chicago has also declared independence from its past. Two areas where Chicago faces a more subtle but more serious challenge.

Chicago is Out of Ideas

First is that, as I’ve noted before, Chicago is out of ideas. The second is Chicago’s declaration of independence from its own essential character in favor of an international homogenized global city goo.

Chicago is out of ideas. This concept might seem crazy, as Chicago is constantly coming up with new things to pursue, such as the Olympics in 2016. But there’s a fundamental problem. Sassen’s theory as outlined above actually makes the case. If the globalized economy needs global cities to function, then in a sense Chicago is an artifact of that economy. Its success is less a result of anything it did to get ready for the future than a matter of blind luck that it was in the right place at the right time. The best illustration of this is to look at other global cities and see if many of them share the same story arc. And they do. In Sassen’s book “The Global City” she notes the glum position of New York, London, and Tokyo in the 1970’s – similar to Chicago’s own Rust Belt malaise of the same era. Recently, those cities have all been booming much as Chicago has. Coincidence? Did all of those cities just happen to turn themselves around at the same time? Or did some outside force act on all of them in a way that caused their renaissance, perhaps in the same way outside forces destroyed the traditional Rust Belt economy? It seems more likely the latter, and that these global cities are simply an emergent property of the global economic network more than the product of any great decisions they themselves made. Much as the needs of Chicago and Detroit created the rest of the rural areas, small towns, and small industrial cities of the Midwest, the needs of globalization created Chicago. It is now no longer the actor, but acted upon. It is the artifact, not the architect.

I argue that there’s a big difference between the Chicago of today and the Chicago of yesterday. It’s not just the level of success, it’s the type of success. Chicago was successful in the agro-industrial era. It’s also successful in the globalization era. But Chicago dominated the agro-industrial area. What’s more, it was the architect of the age. Chicago wasn’t just the capital fo the Midwest, it was the orderer. To a great extent, it created the Midwest. Though Chicago had enormous natural favor and was definitely in the right place at the right time in the 19th century, it wasn’t just a passive recipient of outside forces in becoming what it was in that day. Time and time again, Chicago didn’t just see the world it faced, it understood what it meant. It understood how to position itself to take advantage of what the industrial age meant to America. And that understanding made Chicago the greatest city of its age.

Lots of cities had success in that era. But there was only one Chicago. It was Chicago to which people came to see the embodiment of that era. Again, it can often seem like Chicago was a city of destiny, but it was no such thing. When we see success or failure, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback and suggest that this was obvious all along. But at the time it was no such thing. Cincinnati was the original “hog butcher for the world”, the original Porkopolis. It was the Queen City of the Midwest, ruling its age completely in a manner that only Chicago would ever equal or exceed. St. Louis too once had its pretentions to be the principal city of the west, its Gateway Arch as much monument to those failed ambitions as anything. But only Chicago succeeded.

In Chicago’s heyday, there really was a tangible hierarchy of cities. New York was America’s fiancial capital. Chicago was its interior colossus, which ruled a vast hinterland. Today, scholars well versed in central place theory draw maps of a “dominance hierarchy” of global cities, but these seem to be descriptive only of scale, not actual power relationships. For example, one commonly cited study used branch office locations of companies headquartered in London as a measure of importance in the global economy. As the dominant city of the interior of the world’s largest economy, it makes sense that these London firms would plant their flags in Chicago. But what does that really tell us?

I guess what I’m saying is this. Chicago is a passive beneficiary of the forces of globalization. It’s a first class passenger on the ship to be sure. But it’s not the captain. We’re in the early days of globalization. By analogy to the industrial age, we’re somewhere around the 1830’s. This means the winners are yet to be chosen. In 1830 the railroad had yet to really make its mark. Who knows what globalization might bring.

But I do know this. Nobody ever became #1 by simply copying what other people are doing. But that’s exactly what Chicago is doing now. All of the ideas it has implemented were pioneered elsewhere. Now that’s not to say that the person who invents an idea is always the one to profit from it. Far from it. But simply copying what other people are already doing, and often doing it better or at larger scale, ultimately gets you nowhere. Look at what Chicago has done. Bike lanes, fashion, art, green buildings, restaurants, condos, etc. All of them have already been done as well or better in other places. All of them. There is nothing you can point to in this globalized era that one can say, “Chicago did this”.

In the agro-industrial age, if you wanted to know where to go to find out what it meant to be an industrial metropolis, you went to Chicago. Where do you go in the global era? Somewhere in Asia, the Middle East? Where ever that might be, it sure isn’t Chicago.

This is the imperative facing the city, to find out how to do for the global age what it did for the agro-industrial era. To find out how to become the epicenter. The globalization era, as with the industrial era, will one day fade and give way to something new, at which point its cities will have to reinvent themselves yet again. There’s nothing new in that. But that’s not the challenge that faces Chicago. Rather, in the global era itself, the true winners are yet to be chosen. Chicago seems to be indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation about all the accouterments of the global city it has successfully gathered to itself rather than figuring out what it needs to do to win the game.

There’s certainly reason to believe that Chicago might in fact be in longer term danger. It’s not an accident that I drew the comparison between Chicago in the global era and hinterland cities in the industrial era. Those cities were created to serve certain specialized functions. But the minute those functions were no longer needed, they were tossed overboard like yesterday’s news. Will the same happen to Chicago? No, Chicago will never become Flint, Michigan. But Chicago is in sense specializing in only what globalization demands of it, much like those earlier hinterland cities. Remember when Chicago aspired to be the “Silicon Prairie” and put its hope in Flip Flipowski? Where are those dreams now? Chicago is nowhere in high tech beyond legacy employers. Dittos for biotech and the life sciences economy. In effect, Chicago is a one industry town – finance. The smart shops, swank restaurants, ritzy condos, and fancy galleries were all, in a sense paid for with finance money. In a post-bubble era, what will become of this? We’ll see. I actually happen to think that the current crisis might strengthen Chicago’s relative position, but that doesn’t mean that Chicago has moved beyond being a shadow city of globalizaton.

Again, the winners haven’t been chosen. The field is wide open. I believe there’s an opportunity out there for a city like Chicago to step up and grab the reins, to find out what it takes to differentiate itself, to truly understand the forces of globalization and what they mean, and to uniquely position itself for success. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that Chicago is doing this. Rather, it seems to be engaging in a fairly standard game of keeping up with the Joneses. Does this mean Chicago will fail? Of course not. Heck, even 150+ years after its Porkopolis days, Cincinnati is still a solid place. But it certainly could wake up one day and ask, “Hey, how did we get passed by? Why didn’t we end up in the top ten like we thought we would?”

To avoid that, Chicago needs to take the right kind of risk. It needs to stop following the trends and start creating them. It needs to not just create them, but understand what they mean, just as it understood what the railroad, the futures exchange, the skyscraper, and yes, urban planning, meant.

That’s great, you might say, but what does it mean practically? What are the ideas? Well, since I am The Urbanophile, I have some thoughts. I won’t profess to have all the answers, but I can at least give some idea of the problem space. That is part of what I’ll explore over this series of postings.

Strengthening a Unique Sense of Place

The first I’ll cover in this one. And it’s the second of my problems with Chicago today. This one revolves around the character of a city. So many Midwest places flail around looking for a brand image or identity. Not Chicago. In fact, the identity and stories of Chicago overflow the page. They are too numerous to be written in but a mere blog posting. Yet, what is Chicago doing but declaring independence from these as well. This, I believe, is a mistake.

To me the trend of the Europeanization of the American city as in Chicago is but a facet of the overall homogenization of the global city. Global markets demand standardized commodities that can be graded and traded. This includes cities. This forces cities increasingly into a standard model of what one expects. I’ve repeatedly noted in this blog the example of the Wallpaper guides to world cities. These travel guides, ostensibly a guide for the modern, sophisticated urban traveler to the best of each locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, is much the same as another in any city you visit around the world. The frosting might be different, but the cake is the same. And once you’re commoditized, you’re done.

So it is too with Chicago. I noted in my review of the city’s street lighting what appears to be a deliberate downplaying of the city’s rough-edged, masculine past in favor of a feminized, generic, even suburban motif. You see this repeated throughout. Ask yourself what more than anything epitomizes Chicago. To me, it is none other than Mayor Daley himself. Listen to him speak. Barack Obama he is not. But character he has, lots of it, and what’s more, a fanatical dedication to making Chicago the best city it can possibly be. Is there a lot of corruption in Daley’s Chicago? No dobut. Does Mayor Daley desire to have maximum power over politics in his city? Of course. But nevertheless I get the impression of a guy who every morning wakes up and asks himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” This is a quality of leadership all too lacking in most Midwestern cities. The character of Chicago and the character of Mayor Daley himself seem to me to have so much in common.

Ironically, under Mayor Daley, the city has pursued a policy of abandoning its past, of abandoning the image of the city as evidenced by the mayor himself. You walk down Michigan Ave., through Millenium Park, around the newly thriving neighborhoods, and you expect that city to be led by a Dr. Smooth type character, not a blunt, plainspoken man like the Mayor. But if only the Mayor saw the value in a city that presented a face like his own. A city not ashamed but proud of its rough and tumble edge, of the fact that it was where generations of ne’er-do-wells and hustlers came to wear out their shoe leather trying to make it big, a city that both Al Capone and Paddy Bauler thought not ready for reform, a city that drew generations of farm boys off to its earthly delights, a city from Bridgeport not River North. That’s Chicago. Not a genteel, refined metropolis, not a swank, sophisticated type of town, not a city on a hill. No, but a city of dreams nevertheless, where people came to get rich, to reinvent themselves, to change the course of world history. That’s Chicago.

No, Chicago will never be the Chicago of Cyrus McCormick and Philip Amour and Aaron Montgomery Ward and all the rest. You can’t live off the past. That’s nostalgia and there’s no more corrosive force known to mankind. But you can know who you are, what you stand for, what your heritage is, and how it fits into the future. Not a clinging to the past, but letting your essential character be a guidepost to the future.

The fifth Frank Gehry titantium Bilbao clone, the n-th swank restaurant or shop, the latest in Italian furniture – ultimately none of them will make Chicago Chicago. It’s going to take the real city, an expression of its own terroir and primal identity to do that.

I happen to think Chicago can do it. If it changes course and gets way from following the trends to creating its own future. If it steps up and makes sure the world knows that Chicago, and not just yet another generic world city, is in the house, ready to step up and claim its rightful place.

The real declaration of independence that needs to take place is that of Chicago from the trends of globalization. Chicago will only realize its potential for greatness if it is willing to let go of its insecurity and desire to be a member of the club, and dares once again to think of itself as it did back in the days of the Burnham Plan as a city destined to be the greatest in the world, a city proud of its unique self and not afraid to boldly chart its own course into the great unknown of the future, confident in its capacity to prove victorious and triumphant.

This post originally ran on January 17, 2009.

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

“Sick Housing Market” Ranking Shows Why Many “Top-10” Lists Should Be Deep Sixed by Drew Klacik

The financial news and opinion site 24/7 Wall St. recently ranked Indianapolis number two in its list of America’s 10 sickest housing markets.

I’ve always been fascinated by top-10 lists. Fellow Hoosier David Letterman delivers one every evening. Purdue fans get excited when their basketball team makes the top 10. IU fans hope to earn that distinction too, because recent recruits are ranked in the top 10. Then, of course, there’s the Big 10, which is so enamored of top-10 lists that it retains its name despite having 12 teams.

The Big 10 (12) example points to a big challenge for top 10 list makers. Sometimes, there’s little difference between number 10 and number 11 – or even number 25 for that matter.

A second challenge is that often, a list’s creator fails to fully or even partially explain how the list came to be.

A third challenge is that two different organizations, each ranking the same thing, can come to different conclusions. Take football, for example. The various polls often disagree as to who’s number one.

Given these list-making challenges, I decided to examine Indianapolis’ housing ignominy to determine whether we are justifiably bottom-of-the barrel.

To start, I compared some of the 24/7 Wall St. data for Indianapolis to a few cities that didn’t make the bottom 10.

The key criteria used in this ranking were homeowner and rental vacancy rates for either the 75 largest U.S. cities or, more likely, their metropolitan areas. They excluded from their list any locale that improved its vacancy rate over the last year or quarter and then enhanced the data set with unemployment rates and median home prices.

Of the 75 areas considered, Indianapolis had the fifth-highest home vacancy rate and tenth-highest rental vacancy rate. These are troubling statistics that clearly suggest a supply-and-demand issue. Indianapolis likely needs to reduce the supply of homes and rental units and/or increase demand by attracting more owners and renters.

Tucson, the one city deemed to have a sicker housing market than Indianapolis, had the highest home vacancy rate and sixth-highest rental vacancy rate.

But here’s where it gets confusing: When considering some other housing-market fundamentals, Indianapolis appears very sound. For example, between 2008 and 2010, the median sales price for a home in the Indianapolis metro area increased by $12,100 or 10.9 percent.

The only community on the 10 sickest-housing-market cities list to experience a greater increase in median sales prices was Oklahoma City (13.7 percent). Only two others had any increase at all.

To further confuse matters, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Minneapolis didn’t make the sick-housing-market cities list, yet all experienced a decline in median sales prices – Minneapolis with a precipitous 15.5 percent drop. That’s certainly sickening to would-be sellers.

In addition to its sales-price success, Indianapolis was one of six sick-housing-market cities to experience a decline in unemployment (from 10 percent in June 2010 to 9.1 percent in June 2011) – generally a positive indicator for the housing market. Meanwhile, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Nashville (also not on the list of 10) all experienced an increase in unemployment during the same period. If people aren’t working, they struggle to buy houses.

Then there’s population growth. Between 2000 and 2010, Indianapolis grew by 12.6 percent – fourth fastest among the sick-housing-market communities. Only three on the list (Detroit, Dayton and St. Louis) experienced population loss. Yet other cities suffering losses – including Cincinnati and Milwaukee – were somehow deemed healthy for housing. Go figure.

By now, you might be asking yourself how Indianapolis can be increasing employment and gaining population yet still have high vacancy rates and a sick housing market?

At least part of the answer is that between 2000 and 2010, while Indianapolis added 39,963 people, it also added 36,893 new housing units. That’s a lot of property per resident.

While there’s plenty of room to debate the details of Indianapolis’ sick-housing-market ranking, we undoubtedly have serious and difficult work to do if we’re to address our supply-and-demand imbalance while keeping local housing affordable (we rank in the top 10 for that!).

On the other hand, it might be best to not be in the top ten in either the “sick” or “affordable” lists. Then, Indianapolis would have more balanced market fundamentals, fewer vacant houses and better price appreciation.

As for top-10 lists in general, they’re about image. The data provide the real substance. And when it comes to substance, fundamentals matter, as the Butler University men’s basketball team taught us the past two seasons by proving that you don’t need to be in the top 10 to make the Final Four.

Drew Klacik is a policy analyst for the Indiana University Public Policy Institute at IUPUI. He focuses on public policy related to economic development, state and local taxation, affordable housing and neighborhood development.

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Beer and Evolving Urban Culture

[ Ok, the title is a bit over the top. Indianapolis blog the Hoosier Beer Geek just turned five years old. As part of their celebration, I wrote this short piece on how their blog shows a bit about culture shift in the relationship of the city and state over the course of the last couple decades. ]

I grew up in rural Southern Indiana where the Indianapolis I knew much of my early years was as a dot on a map. The rest of the state did not loom large in our eyes. Today it’s quite different. One of my cousins and a high school classmate are both Colts season ticket holds and Colts fandom is rampant. Another high school classmate started a winery and is very active in the state’s wine making industry. He now often travels to Indianapolis for various festivals and events.

Traditionally Indianapolis had been very cut off from the rest of the state. And while sometimes resentment of the state capital still runs high, Indy is much more connected than in years past, as my own personal story illustrates. Part of that is the result of Indy becoming a sort of “cultural commons” for the entire state, with the city increasingly a focus of statewide attention for things like pro sports and local wine making.

Another example of his has been in the state’s emerging microbrewing scene. Indy itself has fairly few of these, but the state as a whole a large number of high quality brewers, including what I think is the best brewery in the United States – Munster’s 3 Floyds.

The Hoosier Beer Geek has been a key element in binding the state’s brewing industry together and bringing knowledge of the state’s beers to Indianapolis. Rightly they focus on whatever is of the absolute best quality regardless of origin. But they’ve also championed Indiana beers, when they find them measuring up the standards of the world. This includes breweries from the furthest reaches in the state, such as their special tasting events for New Albanian (which is brewed close to where I grew up).

I believe things like this are important in helping Indianapolis build and maintain connections and trust throughout the state, and lowering the barriers of resentment that have traditionally caused problems. This is of critical importance for both the success of the city and state. While HBG may be but a small element of this, it’s very significant because truly vital relationships are built not on a few single mega initiatives but a multitude of small and diverse interactions.

Congrats and best of luck to HBG in its next five years.

This post originally appeared in the Hoosier Beer Geek.

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Miriam in the Midwest by Miriam Fathalla

[ 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.

And then I tried a Chicago-style hot dog. 

And then I met the Tamale Guy.

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

Replay: The Brand Promise of Indianapolis

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.

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

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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