Sunday, April 13th, 2014

On the Riverfront

Thursday I took a look at my “Cincinnati conundrum,” namely how it’s possible for a city that has the greatest collection of civic assets of any city its size in America to underperform demographically and economically. In that piece I called out the sprawl angle. But today I want to take a different look at it by panning back the lens to see Cincinnati as simply one example of the river city.

There are four major cities laid out on an east-west corridor along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis (which is not on the Ohio River, but close enough. I’ll leave Memphis and New Orleans out of it for now). All of these are richly endowed with civic assets like Cincinnati is, having far more than their fair share of great things, yet they’ve all been stagnant to slow growing for decades.

This suggests a broader challenge: if urbanity and quality of life are so determinant of economic success, why aren’t these places juggernauts? It’s not that they are failures by any means, but they are long term under-performers.


Over the Rhine, Cincinnati – one example of the spectacular urban assets of these cities

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since these cities share many characteristics, I wanted to show what they have in common. Doubtless some of these common threads play a role.

These cities came of age earlier than railroad based cities like Chicago. These are some of the earliest major cities in the region, and they owe their prominence to the era when the river was the major form of transport. They’ve all had a heavy German Catholic influence, hence the legacy of breweries and the importance of private Catholic high schools in these areas even today. They have bridge-oriented transportation traffic patterns and bottlenecks. They’ve got interesting geography with hills and trees and some similar climate patterns.

I find it particularly interesting that they have similar political geographies, despite being in four different states. Three of them are multi-state metros, obviously, because the rivers are state borders. But beyond that they all have hyper-fragmented systems of lots of tiny cities and villages that are fiercely independent. Here’s a map of all the municipalities in St. Louis County, for example:


Image via ArchCityHomes

All of these cities ceased annexing early and got hemmed in. St. Louis famously detached itself from the county completely to become an independent city. Only Louisville with its recently city-county merger grew out of this. But Louisville’s Jefferson County still features numerous sixth class cities and such that were excluded from merger, some of which are only a couple blocks in size. Hamilton County, Ohio and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania are similar.

Inside the cities themselves, there are also many well defined, distinct neighborhoods. These are usually small in size compared to what are called neighborhoods in cities like Chicago. Also, there can be deep divisions between the different sides of town. These are very divided cities. Cincinnati has the East Side-West Side divide. Louisville has the East End, the South End, and the West End. And which one you are from is a huge cultural marker. The North and South Sides of Indianapolis are very different and have some sniping back and forth, yet I don’t see the same visceral suspicion across the sides of town compared to say how Louisville’s South End (mostly working class white) sees the East End (the favored quarter). That helps explain why it took Louisville 40 years to build new Ohio River bridges, and why Cincinnati had to overcome unbelievable obstacles to build a streetcar.

These cities are also provincial and insular in their character. As a transplant to Louisville put it, “Louisville is parochial in all the best and worst ways.” These are cities with rich, unique architectural traditions, and with tremendously distinct local cultures compared to other cities in their region such as Indianapolis or Columbus, which have been largely Genericaized. So Cincinnati has its chili. St. Louis has its pizza. Pittsburgh even has its own yinzer dialect. In at least three of the four of these cities – I don’t know about Pittsburgh – the first question you get asked is “Where did you go to high school?” which tells you almost everything you need to know about them.

While provincialism is almost inherently negative as a term, this has big upsides for these cities too. They have an incredible sense of place and uniqueness. The brick houses of St. Louis are unlike anything else, for example. Again, the feel of these places is very notable in contrast to neighbors like Columbus and Indy, which give off a Sprawlville, USA vibe.


Trailer for film Brick: By Chance and Fortune. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Please ignore the unfortunate preview image.

This provincialism comes with two associated character traits. One is a degree of solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical proposition that nothing can be known to exist outside the self. It’s different from egotism. Egotism says you’re better than everybody. Solipsism says there isn’t anybody else. Obviously we’re talking degrees here, not absolutes. But this is key I think to the retention of those local traditions and local character.

I’ll give an example that illustrate this. Cincinnati arts consultant Margy Waller made a comment to me a few years ago that really stuck with me. She said that when people leave Cincinnati and come back, the stuff they did and learned while they were away might as well not have happened. She left and worked for several years in Washington, including in the Clinton White House. I’m not sure exactly what she did there, but if you’re working in the White House, by definition you’re operating at a bigtime level. But that’s barely mentioned in Cincinnati. Few people ever ask how her DC network or experience can inform or support the city.

Similarly Randy Simes is an instructive case. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school, he got a job with a tier one engineering firm in Atlanta. But he also started and ran the blog Urban Cincy, which is a relentlessly positive advocate for the city and maybe its most effective marketing voice to the global urbanist world (the Guardian listed it as among the best urban web sites on the planet). Eager to come back to Cincinnati, he looked for a job there. But he couldn’t find one. Here’s a guy with 1) legitimate professional credentials 2) a top tier firm pedigree 3) the city’s most effective urban advocate 4) non-controversial, positive, and aligned with the political structure of the city and 5) he’s 24-25 years old and so it’s easy to hire him – you don’t need an executive director position or something. Yet no interest. Shortly thereafter he was head hunted by America’s biggest engineering firm to move to Chicago and then was sent on an expat assignment to Korea where he’ll be working on, among other things, one of the world’s most prominent urban developments (one that Cincinnati actually flew people in from Korea to present to them about). Jim Russell had a very similar experience with Pittsburgh.

The relationship of prophets and home towns has been known for some time, so I don’t want to pretend this is a totally unique case. But I can’t help but compare Randy’s case to blogger/advocate Richey Piiparinen in Cleveland, for whom an entire research center was created at Cleveland State (admittedly, he was already local at the time). I just don’t think Randy’s accomplishments outside Cincinnati resonated.

And secondly, these places do sometimes cross over into a sort of hauteur. I think because these were all very large, important cities in their earlier days and because they had so much amazing stuff, it bred a sort of aristocratic mindset perhaps. Having lived in both Louisville and Indianapolis, I clearly see the difference. In Indianapolis cool people will happily tell you how awesome they think St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville are. They’ll make visits to say the 21C Hotel or Forecastle Festival in Louisville and write and say great things about it and even how they wish Indy had some of those things.

But people from Louisville would rather bite their tongues out than say nice things about Indianapolis. If forced to, they will, but they do it in the most grudging way. I’ll never forget a travel guide for Louisville called the “Insiders Guide to Louisville” (I believe different than the one currently being sold under that name). In the intro they were bragging about Louisville’s totally legitimate food scene, but they had to throw in a gratuitous insult by saying something along the lines of, “Every city has good restaurants these days – even Indianapolis, we hear – but Louisville’s restaurants are truly special.” When Indianapolis Monthly did its “Chain City, USA” cover on Indy’s restaurants, I had to send it to my friends in Louisville since I knew they’d eat it up gleefully. (If you watched the St. Louis brick film trailer, you’ll also notice someone in it throwing a similar gratuitous dart at the Illinois brick used in Chicago).

Hot off the presses is this travel piece on Indianapolis written by someone in Louisville. As a travel piece, by is going to be positive by the very nature of the genre, but note the way the writer frames up the trip:

I bristle whenever I hear about flyover country – my home of Louisville is smack in the heart of what east and west coasters think is just the space they have to cross to get from one good part of the country to another – so I should be a little more open minded. But maybe because of my fondness for my hometown, it turns out I’ve been harboring a bit of the same snobbery that those fliers do – toward a northern neighbor.

My friend Kristian was bragging to me about Indy’s tech scene one day. I’d just gotten back from Cincinnati where I’d gotten to see their tech scene showcased, tour the Brandery accelerator, etc. So I said, “What about Cincinnati? Looks like they are rocking and rolling.” Kristian was like, “Oh yeah, they’re awesome. I was just down there and they totally get it, there’s some great stuff going on.” Then he made a comment that I think summed it up: “You know what though? They’re in love with their own story.”

That sums it up. These cities are in love with their own stories. That perhaps also explains a bit of it. With so many amazing assets it’s easy to be complacent. It reminds me of the famous quote from the triumphant (and boosterish) Chicago Democrat as Chicago started to pull away from St. Louis as the commercial capital of the Midwest: “St. Louis businessmen wore their pantaloons out sitting and waiting for trade to come to them while Chicago’s wore their shoes out running after it.”

If you’re too in love with your own story, you’re not going to work as hard as you should to take that story to the next level. After all, the story of these cities isn’t finished yet. But there’s a new generation in these places that aren’t wedded to the old ways. They love the story, but have some chapters of their own they want to write. As urban assets they have come back into fashion in the market, it will be interesting to see how they evolve. As the press for Pittsburgh shows, for example, there’s already plenty of signs of an inflection point. And in a region where places tend to flagellate themselves, having some cities with a bit of honest to goodness civic hauteur can actually be a refreshing change.

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Did Robots Save Pittsburgh?

Glenn Thrush over at Politico had a lengthy article called “The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh” which has been getting quite a bit of attention:

Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries. It’s growing in population for the first time since the 1950s, and now features regularly in lists like “the Hottest Cities of the Future” and “Best Cities for Working Mothers.” “The city is sort of in a sweet spot,” says Sanjiv Singh, a Whittaker acolyte at Carnegie Mellon who is working on the first-of-its-kind pilotless medical evacuation helicopter for the Marines. “It has the critical mass of talent you need, it’s still pretty affordable and it has corporate memory—the people here still remember when the place was an industrial powerhouse.”

Improbably for a blue-collar town that seemed headed for the scrap heap when its steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh has developed into one of the country’s most vibrant tech centers, a hotbed of innovation that can no longer be ignored by the industry’s titans.

Pittsburgh has been getting a lot of press for its job growth, income growth, and even the reversal of demographic loss in switching from net out migration to net in migration. But is the hype warranted?

To look at whether there really has been some boom in the brain-powered economy, I decided to look at college grads. After all, if brains are what is powering Pittsburgh, then we’d expect to see more brains collecting there.

First let’s look at metro area college degree attainment change since 2000 vs. other large Midwestern regions:

Rank Metro Area 2000 2012 Change in % of Total Adult (25+) Population
1 Pittsburgh, PA 396,981 (23.4%) 513,838 (30.5%) 7.11%
2 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 633,112 (33.3%) 881,581 (39.5%) 6.20%
3 St. Louis, MO-IL 435,940 (24.8%) 586,547 (30.8%) 5.93%
4 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 1,679,306 (29.0%) 2,190,424 (34.8%) 5.83%
5 Columbus, OH 291,995 (28.3%) 419,136 (34.1%) 5.76%
6 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 260,705 (26.5%) 377,189 (32.1%) 5.59%
7 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 260,981 (27.0%) 337,253 (32.5%) 5.51%
8 Kansas City, MO-KS 334,225 (28.0%) 460,391 (33.5%) 5.49%
9 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 163,080 (21.2%) 233,566 (26.5%) 5.37%
10 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 676,906 (23.2%) 819,347 (28.2%) 5.01%
11 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 319,469 (24.8%) 419,714 (29.6%) 4.78%
12 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 343,103 (23.9%) 405,731 (28.5%) 4.58%

Pittsburgh is #1 and is one of the tops in the country in its increase in share of the adult population with college degrees. That’s good news. However, this isn’t all it seems. Pittsburgh is the clear #1 among large metros in the percentage of its population over age 85. Last I checked it was also a rare metro with natural decrease, that is, more deaths than births. Pittsburgh’s attainment rates are being boosted at a higher rate than other places because more poorly educated older cohorts are dying.

Let’s look at it in terms of actual brains, the people with degrees:


Rank Metro Area 2000 2012 Total Change Pct Change
1 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 260,705 377,189 116,484 44.68%
2 Columbus, OH 291,995 419,136 127,141 43.54%
3 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 163,080 233,566 70,486 43.22%
4 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 633,112 881,581 248,469 39.25%
5 Kansas City, MO-KS 334,225 460,391 126,166 37.75%
6 St. Louis, MO-IL 435,940 586,547 150,607 34.55%
7 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 319,469 419,714 100,245 31.38%
8 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 1,679,306 2,190,424 511,118 30.44%
9 Pittsburgh, PA 396,981 513,838 116,857 29.44%
10 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 260,981 337,253 76,272 29.23%
11 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 676,906 819,347 142,441 21.04%
12 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 343,103 405,731 62,628 18.25%

Pittsburgh doesn’t look so great here. It’s towards the bottom even in Midwest metros in percentage gain in the total number of adults with degrees, and the total number of new grads is lower than in some other Midwest metros that are smaller than Pittsburgh.

However, let’s look at a core municipality view. (Louisville excluded because of a city-county merger):


Rank Municipality 2000 2012 Total Change Pct Change
1 St. Louis city, MO 42,338 65,161 22,823 53.91%
2 Columbus city, OH 128,058 177,251 49,193 38.41%
3 Pittsburgh city, PA 57,267 77,500 20,233 35.33%
4 Chicago city, IL 462,783 623,484 160,701 34.72%
5 Kansas City city, MO 73,824 98,806 24,982 33.84%
6 Minneapolis city, MN 91,027 119,231 28,204 30.98%
7 Milwaukee city, WI 64,742 79,520 14,778 22.83%
8 Indianapolis city (balance), IN 127,608 152,998 25,390 19.90%
9 Cleveland city, OH 33,949 38,369 4,420 13.02%
10 Cincinnati city, OH 55,215 56,938 1,723 3.12%
11 Detroit city, MI 61,836 56,770 -5,066 -8.19%

Here Pittsburgh is back to showing strong growth. I should also point out the very good showing by St. Louis, a region conventionally viewed as slow growth. Pittburgh had strong growth in people with degrees inside the city. If I were to judge just based on this quick look at the data, the relatively small city of Pittsburgh appears to be gearing things up around its educational complex, but the rest of the region is still somewhat a laggard in brainpower growth. The high tech turnaround may be more a city of Pittsburgh story than a regional one.

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Pittsburgh: Shadows of the City

This week I’m featuring a promotional video for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was part of a series of videos Atlantic Cities highlighted about the city. They say this is played at the stadium before every home game. I can see why. It’s a fantastic piece. The way that it captures gritty Pittsburgh while also throwing in slices of more traditional “cool urban” (like skyline shots) and lots of average, everyday people instead of the Beautiful or the Bearded Ones is great. The lessons of this videos should be absorbed by the tourism teams of most cities which as a rule continue to churn out work that actively makes me not want to visit those cities. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

I’d like to contrast the Pittsburgh with a video called “Here Is St. Louis.” I pick that one not because it’s bad, but because in many ways is actually very well done. It’s not a tourism video, but what I’d call an explicit “city video” of the type I often post here. This video does indeed show many only in St. Louis type landmarks, shots of people, etc. But where this video falls flat is that it tries too hard to make St. Louis look like a super-cool city. Coffee shops, microbreweries, cool restaurants, record stores, etc. It checks all the boxes. But substitute in your city’s equivalents for everything shot in the video, and you’d probably come away not really being able to tell the difference. This doesn’t tell a truly compelling story of St. Louis, though it’s certainly well done and conveys the city positively. I just think the Pirates did a much better job of capturing the unique spirit of their city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t Chris LeBeau

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic: yes. Cool? A toilet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks continues:

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

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

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

American splendor, indeed.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

This Is Sprawl, Pittsburgh Edition

It can be difficult to identify exactly what sprawl is sometimes. Many cities are experiencing strong suburban expansion, but are also growing regional population as well. When you are adding nearly a million and a half people a decade like Houston is, it’s very likely your urban footprint is going to grow.

But there are some cities in America whose regional population has been flat (perhaps with some ups and downs in between) since 1950. This lets us examine sprawl in its pure form – an increase in urban footprint with no increase in population. Chuck Banas previously showed us this at work in Buffalo. Now Don Carter has done the same thing for Pittsburgh. In his recent TEDxPittsburgh talk, he put up the graphic below which struck me right away:

That’s a staggering increase in the urban footprint for no increase in population. The population ups and downs clearly nowhere came close to this footprint increase. While certainly not the only factor at work, clearly in many places this is part of the reason why we are broke. As Chuck Banas put it, “Same number of people, three times as much stuff.” – to pay for and maintain forever. No wonder some places are in such bad fiscal shape.

If you don’t remember Chuck’s Buffalo map, here it is again to refresh your memory:

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Replay: Migration Matters

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.

For more on this topic, I’d suggest reading my “What’s Killing California?” or Ryan Avent’s “Disruptive Technologies“.

Network Migration

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.

Retirement

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.

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Urbanoscope

I am a transplant to Louisville, and I must admit that the culture here has been difficult to adapt to, although I still try. There are many things I like about this city, but in terms of jobs, ambition, and looking toward the future, I have to say, these results are not surprising. I don’t get the impression, on the whole, that Louisville wants to move ahead. Every city has its faults. Clannish immaturity is Louisville’s. I hope that Louisville can retain its character while simultaneously opening up. It may not be possible. Young, educated workers do not want to recreate the 1970s in their work environment. I’m sorry if that’s harsh, but it’s the truth. – User “cccc2222″ commenting on Courier-Journal story about Louisville’s failure to achieve its economic ambitions

I’m going to be on Chicago Public Radio’s 848 Monday at 9am talking transportation as part of their “Mayor Monday” series. They might even be taking listener calls, so check it out if you’re in Chicago.

Also, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on quality of place and product at an event on Building Prosperity in the Greater Akron Region on January 18th, sponsored by Greater Ohio and the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce. There will be a lot of great speakers including Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities, Julia Taylor of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, along with many state and local leaders. If you’re in the region and want more information, click here.

How’s this for an offer? The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago is looking for people to host house party gatherings to discuss issues about the next mayoral race. If you’ve got a group who would be interested, let them know and they’ll supply staff and resources. If you support CNT and their policy recommendations, they’ll actually do the work in educating your friends on them.

The National Film Board of Canada created an interactive site called Out My Window showing panoramic views from residential high rises and such with 13 families living in them in various cities around the world.

Top Stories

1. Ben Schmitt: Broken windows in the Motor City: A Detroit exit journal. A reporter talks about giving up on his plan to stake a claim in Detroit’s revival, and moving to Pittsburgh. This is a really tough story. “Those people who helped me that night, as we waited more than two hours for the cops to arrive, illustrate the fight inside many residents desperate to turn Detroit around. For a while I believed in that fight. I purchased a home in one of the city’s stable neighborhoods nine years earlier because it felt real. I scoffed at other colleagues and editors who drove to work on the freeways and never spent a minute in the city they covered. But when I heard my daughters’ screams that evening, I knew I was gone. No more compromises.”

2. Gov. Ed Rendell: The NFL Thinks We’re a Nation of Wussies – Not urban related per se, but I liked this piece. – “To call off this game because of snow is further evidence of the ‘wussification’ of America. We seem to have lost our boldness, our courage, our sense of adventure and that frontier spirit that made this country the greatest nation in the world. A little snow, a potential traffic tie-up, a long trip home caused us to cancel a football game? Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, said that if football were played in China, 60,000 Chinese would have walked through the snow to the stadium doing advanced calculus as they did so. He’s probably right, and it’s no secret why the Chinese are dominating on the world stage.”

3. Ed Glaeser: America’s Revival Begins in Its Cities

4. Demography Matters pointed me at a very interesting blog called Spike Japan that talks about a side of Japan we rarely see, a side falling into Rust Belt ruin – “It may come as a shock to almost all of you living outside of Japan, and to some of you living in the center of its big cities, that as we approach the summer of 2009, swathes of the country are in ruins. It came as a shock to me, too, I have to confess, having lived for almost all of the last decade in the bubble of central Tokyo and only venturing outside occasionally to get to the airport, nearby beaches, and old friends in the mountains.”

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The trailer for a forthcoming documentary about the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was designed by starchitect Minoru Yamasaki – architect of the World Trade Center – and demolished in 1972. The trailer looks very interesting, so I’ll look forward to seeing the whole thing. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

World and National Roundup

Miller-McCune: A road less traveled – Have we reached “peak travel” in the industrialized world?

Human Transit: Do roads pay for themselves? – Jarrett Walker looks at a recent study on the matter by the liberal non-profit US PIRG.

Daily Mail: Eco-light bulb cost to triple as ban on old style bulbs kicks in – well surprise, surprise.

Jim Russell: The End of Migration

The Atlantic: Dire States – more bad news about state finances

Alex Marshall: Distinctiveness: A Big Secret to Cities’ Success

Tim Campbell: Cities on the Prowl

Ed Glaeser: Behind the population shift – He credits it to housing regulation.

Business Insider: The 11 State Pension Funds That Will Run Out of Money – No surprise Illinois is #1, but Indiana is #3, and it also scores poorly in many other pension rankings though the pension situation does not even seem to be on the radar in the state. Odd.

New Geography: Washington opens the virtual office door

City Roundups

Next American City: Interview with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

LA Times: In a region that imports water, much goes to waste – A discussion of how rain that does fall in LA is basically just channeled off into the ocean instead of captured and reused.

Richard Longworth: A New Year for the Midwest

NYT: Chicago to redevelop US Steel site on lakefront

Chicago Tribune: Chicago’s transportation infrastructure weakening.

Chicago Tribune: Will Chicago think big after Daley?

Chicago Reporter: Loopholes – Despite the huge investment in TIF money, central Chicago actually lost jobs.

Megan Cottrell: Did public housing destroy Chicago’s black voter base? – I’m convinced there’s a Pulitzer for the person who tracks down where the former residents of Chicago’s demolished public housing projects went. A have a friend who is a cop in Gary who says there has been a big influx of ex-CHA residents there. Dittos a friend in Danville, Illinois. And I’ve heard similar reports out of Iowa. It immediately raises the question, was demolition of the projects less about helping the people who lived there than about a deliberate deracination program?

Indy Star: New projects could boost city’s entertainment districts – Quotes Yours Truly plus Kevin Kastner of Urban Indy.

Indianapolis Business Journal: Indianapolis startup scene gains momentum

Cleveland Plain Dealer: In hard times, Cleveland blacks’ views about immigrants shifting

NYT: Trying to overcome the stubborn blight of vacancies in Youngstown

Audrey Russo: Immigration and In-Migration in Pittsburgh

Pittsblog: The New Pittsburgh

Detroit Free Press: Risky best cost Detroit pension funds $480 million and Where the Detroit pension funds went wrong

NYT: In Michigan, Hamtramck pleads for a bankruptcy option

Welcome to Cleveburgh

Chris Briem had a great op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette this week touting a super-regional “Cleveburgh” corridor running from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. If a true mega-regional concept is ever really going to take off, the first step is probably this sort of cross-metro collaboration between neighbors. Here’s Briem’s Cleveburgh map:

Will the Boondoggles Never Cease?

UrbanCincy reports that in it’s latest five year construction plan, the Ohio Department of Transportation, an agency that doesn’t have enough funds to maintain the roads it has in a state in the middle of an acute economic and fiscal crisis, has allocated $809M to extend I-74 through Hamilton County.

Huh? I can’t believe anyone would put this high on a needs list, if indeed it is needed at all. I certainly don’t think so. Hamilton County actually has fewer people today than it did in 1970s, the region is growing more slowly than the national average, and it may already have more miles of six-eight lane freeway than any peer city in America.

Here’s a great chance for new Gov. Kasich to show his conservative bona fides. He cancelled the less expensive 3C rail project as something that state couldn’t afford. (I was also not a fan of that project). Here’s another one he can kill.

I’m a big believer in building infrastructure, and yes, even in building more roads where appropriate. But even among nominally fiscal conservative governors, it’s tough to find any highway boondoggle big enough that they are willing to cancel it. Here’s a perfect opportunity for Kasich to distinguish himself and step up to the plate.

Chicago Lakefront Trail

I think Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure is great, but it’s always great to get nice videos that come from other places too. Here’s one that Joe Peterangelo put together of the Chicago lakefront trail. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Post Script

Here’s another amazing early film, this done in 1897 by Thomas Edison of the intersection of State and Madison in Chicago. Hat tip How to Be a Retronaut. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Urbanoscope

Once you accept the facts of instability, every dilapidated building becomes an opera set, every anarchic service becomes a business idea, every un-enforced law is an opportunity. – Bahi Ghubril, speaking of Beirut in Monocle magazine

Check out my Thanksgiving open thread to see what people are thankful for about their city.

Another awesome program by CEOs for Cities is the Give a Minute campaign, in which they are asking people what would encourage them to bike, walk, or take the CTA more often. Please click on over the web site and make your contribution.

And also if you’re in Chicago, you might want to check out Metropulse Chicago, a new community indicators site put out by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

For anyone interested in the story behind Cincinnati’s abandoned subway tunnels, Jake Meckelnborg wrote a book about it you can check out.

Indianapolis Parking Meters – Final Installment

I wanted to close the loop on the Indianapolis parking meter lease. Unlike in Pittsburgh, where a wise city council rejected a long term lease, Indianapolis unsurprisingly passed it, which is truly disappointing.

I focused on the bad public policy angle of this, others covered conflicts of interest or political angles or whatever matters to them. But all this debate over the transaction of the moment I think obscures the larger trend. Once, Indianapolis was a place where visionary and determined leadership across the community and across parties transformed an overgrown small town and backwater state capital known as “India-No-Place” into arguably the best performing large Midwest city and one of the few holding its own or even leading the rest of America. Today, as this contract helps illustrate, Indianapolis is more and more just another city. That’s disappointing. I certainly hope for the best, but it will be interesting to watch Indy’s performance going forward in this new civic era for the city.

Richard Florida on CNN International

Richard Florida talked about his book the Great Reset on CNN international last week. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here). Unfortunately, there will be a pre-roll ad on this video.

World and National Roundup

Esquire: Janette Sadik-Khan named one of 2010’s ‘Best and Brightest’

The National Endowment for the Arts published an interesting report on Creative Placemaking

William Fulton: City and State Smokestack Chasing Blows Mostly Smoke

Neal Peirce: A ‘Golden Moment’ for Cities?

Joel Kotkin: The Rise of the Efficient City

NYT: “Smart” Electric Meters Draw Complaints of Inaccuracy

New Geography: The Other Chambers of Commerce

Richard Longworth: A Region on the Mississippi

Daily Yonder: Many outmigration counties are prosperous

NYT: Walgreens tackles food deserts

Owen Hatherley: Shanghai International Exposition

Steve LaFleur: Toronto Election Shows the Failure of Amalgamation

WSJ: New York Poised to Grab New Jersey’s Tunnel Money

NYT: New York Studies Subway Tunnel to New Jersey – Extending the 7 line to Secaucus.

Richard Layman: Corruption: DC vs. Maryland Jurisdictions

NYT: Los Angeles Mass Transit Is Expanding

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Area stunts growth by feeding on itself

Indianapolis Business Journal: West Side revitalization plan aims to capitalize on diverse retailers

Chicago Tribune: Deals bring Chicago’s public pension funds to the brink of insolvency and Risky investments not paying off for Chicago pension funds.

Chicago Sun-Times: Houses more valuable near Metra stations

Vote With Your Feet: Stalled on the Bloomingdale Trail

The Guardian: Top Players Fall Silent as Detroit Symphony Orchestra fights for survival – Even Detroit’s symphony issues are able to muster tier one international press coverage.

NYT: Hello, Columbus – How Columbus, Ohio became a gay mecca.

Winter Cycling in Copenhagen

Apparently most cyclists in Copenhagen keep right on doing it even in the heart of winter. Copenhagenize put up this great one minute video to prove it. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). It’s something to keep in mind as he head into the winter season here in the US and the rest of the northern hemisphere. Copenhagenize the planet!

Buffalo, This Place Matters

I normally don’t link to promotional videos, but this piece from from Buffalo’s CVB called “Buffalo, This Place Matters” is very well done. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

New York Bicycling

EcoMobility.tv in Montreal created the four minute video below about cycling in New York that’s definitely work a watch. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Reinventing Pittsburgh

A web site called “Changing Gears,” a collaboration of public radio stations in Chicago, Michigan, and Ohio, did a five part series profiling Pittsburgh’s turnaround and the lessons it might offer to others. The site has audio available of course, but also the transcripts of the pieces are there for your reading pleasure:

Post-Script

Matt Heidelberger profiles the 12 most dingy New York subway stations in his wonderful post “The Dirty Dozen.” Like the loss of the Bilerico Project duo to DC, the loss of Matt Heildelberger to NYC is a cruel blow to Indy’s blogosphere.

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Pittsburgh and the Magic of Failure by Ben Schulman

In recent years, Pittsburgh has developed an almost exotic allure as a successfully reborn, recast city. Since its near complete collapse in the early 1980s, when 85,000 regional jobs were lost as the steel industry decayed, Pittsburgh has been shaking off demographic decline and slowly morphing into an updated version of its former self — if not as a manufacturing colossus, at least in terms of having thriving street-life, dense, small-scale development supported throughout its neighborhoods, and a sense of economic vibrancy. This percolating renewal culminated, or at least achieved validity, with President Obama’s decision to place last year’s G20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

Obama’s decision to do so set off a small media frenzy about Pittsburgh’s determined grit and resiliency, with odes from Newsweek, The Atlantic, and Forbes all heralding the rejuvenation of one of America’s most overlooked urban jewels. Of course, the G20 boost was just landing on the tail end of a long-arc of reformation, as the New York Times had noted even earlier in 2009. On a recent visit just a few weeks ago to the city nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the amenities, vitality, and cultural options available seemed to be mammoth for a place of its size.

Walking through the Cultural District downtown, crossing the Sixth Street Bridge to the Pirates’ PNC Park (adjacent to the Andy Warhol Museum), heading a bit north to the devastatingly beautiful Mexican War Streets Historic District (home to avant-art capital The Mattress Factory), crossing over to the hipster haven of Carson St on the South Side, exploring the teeming Old World-Bronx-circa-1950 feel of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scarfing down the overwhelming deliciousness of the Saturday morning open-air food market that is the Strip District, or randomly stumbling into a milonga during the Lawrenceville neighborhood’s First Friday evening artwalks, it isn’t easy not to get caught up in the Pittsburgh reincarnation story. (Not even mentioned: Oakland, home to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh; Shadyside, the host to some of the most impressive homes anywhere in the country, and many other neighborhoods of the 89 distinct ‘hoods that make up Pittsburgh proper.)

Like any place, the book on Pittsburgh is yet complete. Despite its successes, the city is saddled with a looming pension crisis in which more pensioners are due out money than there are currently city workers paying into the fund. The results of the 2010 census will again show a hefty population decline within the city limits, and the region has shown- up until recently- little growth in terms of international and domestic migration. But unlike places like Detroit or Cleveland, where a slow, spiraling decline of industry and population are exacerbating underlying dysfunctional conditions and dependency on old models of growth, Pittsburgh is undergoing a peculiar demographic turnover wherein more people are dying within the city than are being born and/or moving in at present.

Hence, the city is molting, literally discarding the remnants of its past. When the process is complete, which looks very close to occurring, the city left behind will be in some respects, a new, shining city on (many) hill(s). And an incredibly educated one at that, vying with Washington D.C. for the largest proportion of young adults aged 25-34 with post-graduate degrees. Pittsburgh booster and Burgh Diaspora blogger Jim Russell has been an incredibly insightful and influential voice when discussing Pittsburgh’s structural strengths that bode well for its future. Noting the large amount of students from its universities and colleges moving in-and-out of town, Russell has posited that Pittsburgh’s constant shuffling out-migration of students is actually an asset to the region. Much in the same fashion that cities like Chicago and New York consistently draw in and spit out people, Pittsburgh, on a smaller scale, now has the opportunity to do the same, keeping the homegrown ideas, businesses and most importantly networks, in place. After all, a globalized economy will lead to cities with a globalized network, regardless of actual population size. In other words, less could be more in this case.

This article however isn’t intended merely to be a love letter to Pittsburgh and its champions. Nor is it to say that Pittsburgh is even necessarily an appropriate model for struggling, formerly manufacturing-oriented cities in need of what urbanist Richard Florida, a former Pittsburgher himself, has called “The Great Reset.” The lesson to be gleamed from Pittsburgh isn’t so much in what steps it’s taken on its way to recovery. Rather, the lesson to be learned from Pittsburgh is what happened to it when its Great Recession hit in 1983.

It failed.

The steel collapse decimated Pittsburgh and its region, taking with it nearly 1 out of every 10 jobs there. Entire towns surrounding the city became obsolete. But it is because of that failure, that absolute bottoming-out, that Pittsburgh has been able to cast aside its past and emerge as a unique showcase of what a small, bustling, connected American city can eventually become. The example of Pittsburgh is to fail on the failures and invest in the attributes- granted, of which the ‘Burgh had many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- that a place already has. It is a tale not so much for cities facing similar problems to the Pittsburgh of 30 years past, as it is for the country as a whole in this stage of national transmogrification.

Like Pittsburgh did, the country needs to realize that failure is an option. Failure can be a catalyst for movement and for action. Failure can be a paradoxical assertion of American greatness. It is time for great structural changes that reinvest in our national attributes- granted, of which America has many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- rather than band-aiding failed foreclosure prevention policies.

The current crisis could be used to rewrite the rules in regards to short-sales, allowing underwater homeowners to sell their properties without being penalized, as they are now by having the forgiven loan amount treated as taxable income. By freeing sellers from this penalty, in effect, the mobility of individuals to go where opportunities are increases, and the housing market loosens. As the aforementioned Richard Florida has mentioned, perhaps now is the time to get rid of the tax deduction for mortgage interest and enable the country to settle into new modes of habitation. Let’s let Detroit shrink. Bring back the Public Option. We could radically alter the political landscape of the country for the benefit of all by adopting Neil Freeman from FakeistheNewReal.org’s Electoral Reform Map. By doing so, and combining logical population distributions into political constituencies, the increasingly marginalized communities that currently comprise our States could be eliminated, moving us past the versus mentality that simply infects the country and its politics to the point of stagnation.

There are many, many intriguing, innovative and encouraging ideas floating out there, and our collective fear of failure is the only thing preventing the nation from remedying itself anew. Maybe it’s time to look towards Pittsburgh, a magnificent failure that now seems to be a wondrous place to do business in, a place to create in, a place to live. Riding the steep funicular incline to rest atop the city’s Mt. Washington neighborhood, and taking in the vista of its Golden Triangle, some could even say a place of magic.

This post originally appeared at Gapers Block. Reprinted with permission.

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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