Thursday, October 9th, 2014
As a follow-on to my Guardian piece last week “In Praise of Boring Cities” I want to highlight a companion piece by Victoria and Albert Museum curator Rory Hyde called “Bollards, Bricks and Black Cabs: Why the Best Urban Objects Are Mundane.” His arguments in it are in line with my old adage that the mark of a great city is it how it treats its ordinary things, not its special ones. Every city does their main street, their war memorials, etc. up right. There’s no distinctiveness there. But what about the average street, space, or object? That’s when the real values of a place are often revealed. As Hyde puts it:
Mundane city objects also offer a glimpse into the operational logic of a city. Pedestrian buttons, building materials or the Johnston typeface are the visible moments when vast urban systems reveal themselves. They are the hooks that invite our participation in the system. Despite or because of their mundanity, they are the city – as close as we can get to this big machine we inhabit.
Whatever you think of these projects (does it matter that the traffic light MoMu celebrates was actually designed in 1965, not 1868 as the label claims? Kind of, yes), noticing city objects “in the wild” can jolt you out of the moment to reflect on the millions of design decisions that bring the city into being. Boring objects can teach us that the city is an intentionally constructed project – and therefore a project that can be changed for the better.
Again, I’d add that by inspecting these elements, something important about the city and its people is revealed.
As I wrote previously, it’s London, a city chock full of iconic buildings and such, that perhaps best embodies the notion of treating the ordinary as special. This is easily seen in its black cabs, retro telephone boxes, and police uniforms. True, there’s an element of kitsch at work. But that too is a part of the city. It’s just another small entry showing the why London has remained arguably the premier city in the world for so long.
Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
Following on from my Governing piece, here’s a video of a similar presentation I gave on city branding at a symposium on the topic at the University of Washington-Tacoma.
I normally do not like to pick on smaller cities (bigger cities and ones that profess to be world class should be able to take it), but in this case I wanted to make some direct peer style comparisons to cities the size of Tacoma. Here are links to the videos I reference in the talk. They weren’t included in the posted version.
Video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M1rT9hX1nE (I also wrote a post on this one a while back)
Video 2: https://vimeo.com/70575853 (I only played 3:45 or so of this one)
Video 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZt-pOc3moc
If the embed doesn’t display, click over to You Tube.
Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
Last week’s episode of the Monocle 24 show the Urbanist was an interesting look at the “world city” or “global city.” They take a bit of a skeptical look, showing how, for example, many residents of Istanbul are at odds with the construction boom designed to turn the city into what one critic dubbed a low-grade Dubai. And also how smaller cities like Lisbon and Wellington, New Zealand are following their own path without trying to aspire to compete as peers with the big boys. They also take on Vancouver, though fail to note its extremely high housing prices (it’s not livable if you can’t live there), and also its gang wars and other issues that belie the kumbaya vision the mayor is pitching. And there’s a conversation with an analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit who talks about that organization’s ratings. It’s a bit eyebrow raising that Monocle, a publication that has done a lot to promote the whole global city idea and transnational norms, values and amenities to which all cities are called on to aspire to (in addition to publishing its own league table), would be critiquing the global city, but it’s a good listen regardless.
If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.
Friday, August 29th, 2014
A whimsical fairy tale convenience store in Kokomo, Indiana
Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution likes to talk about a paradigm called “cut to invest.” The idea is to cut spending on operations and lower priority items in order finance investments in higher priority infrastructure or other projects. Nice theory, but who is actually doing it?
One example is Kokomo, Indiana. It’s not the mythical tropical island paradise you may have heard about from the Beach Boys. Instead it’s a small industrial city of around 57,000 people about 45 miles north of Indianapolis. After I posted a piece from Eric McAfee about Kokomo’s intelligent rail trail design, someone from the city reached out and invited me to come for a visit. So that’s what I did this week.
What I discovered is that Kokomo has done a lot more than just build a trail. They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, inaugurated transit service with a free bus circulator, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing. Like Eric, however, I wasn’t just struck by the projects themselves, but they obvious attention to detail that went into their design. And especially by the fact that they’ve done it almost all by paying cash – no debt – in a city that went through an economic wringer during the recession.
A lot, though not all, of this has been pushed by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who’s gone from factory worker to politician during his career. He also appears to be an urban planning geek, as the stack of books behind his desk shows.
I sat down with the mayor and chatted about how the city pulled off this program of investment. After the jump I’ll visually walk you through a number of the projects. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.
Now let’s take a look at what’s going on. I mentioned the pedestrian bumpouts. Here’s an example of one:
Pretty much every downtown intersection has a treatment like this, including landscaping. Taking a page from other cities’ playbook, Kokomo has invested in beautification, including not only landscaping of pedestrian bumpouts, but also hanging flower planters we’ll see later. These were actually put into place by Goodnight’s predecessor and were a huge source of controversy at the time, though seem to be well-accepted by now.
Here’s another example on a street heading out of downtown.
I’m actually of two minds about bumpouts. They do facilitate pedestrian crossings, but also can force bicyclists out of the curb lane into traffic. I’ve generally found them obnoxious when bicycling. The street widths through the bumpouts look ok here, but I didn’t put it to the test. A number of streets have painted bicycle lanes, where this is definitely not a problem.
Eric’s blog post was about the Industrial Heritage Trail. Here’s a shot of that through downtown:
I think this is really attractive. It reminds me of a red brick version of the Indy Cultural Trail. This section actually has a separate sidewalk from the biking trail, but that’s not the norm. Kokomo has really made a point to include some ped-bike protection wherever possible. So the landscape buffer is narrow, but effective and attractive. (It doesn’t use bioswale type green stormwater detention like the Indy Cultural Trail, though). There’s also ample street lighting and street furnishings.
As one nice touch, note the back side of the stop sign. It’s black to match the color of the other items, not just plain galvanized steel. This treatment is done throughout downtown and adds a bit of refinement.
Here’s another shot of a segment a bit south. Note the bespoke bike rack.
There aren’t people in these photos, you might have noticed. I was doing this walking tour on a Tuesday morning, and it wasn’t super-crowded but I did see multiple people out biking and walking on these trails.
On the south side of downtown, the IHT crosses and east-west path called the “Walk of Excellence.” I love the name because reminding Hoosiers that a focus on excellence is an absolute must to survive the brutal global competition. Here’s a shot:
Again, very attractive. And again, a narrow but nice buffer between the trail and the street, even though the roadway is little more than an alley or driveway. This is very consistently done, in another place even where the trail just passes through a parking lot. That’s what I mean by attention to detail. There’s a stream running to the left of the trail which adds to the pleasant effect of walking along it.
Here’s a street crossing:
The trail has its own traffic control signs, as well as a street sign near bicycling eye level to tell users what street they are at. In my experience, that’s too rare in trail design. You can also see bumpouts here along with large concrete planters that add beauty and make the crosswalk and street narrowing very visible to drivers.
Here’s another crossing example, showing the different crosswalk shading as well:
Here’s a bike route sign, with the city seal on it. That’s another nice touch and one that shows a certain pride of place versus a generic sign.
Moving on, here’s a median treatment on a major street. This goes on quite a distance:
Not only is this very nice, including more flowers, decorative street lights, etc, but the metal railings are especially unique. The railings were actually custom fabricated by the high school’s shop class. Not only was this great real world practice for the students, but the city paid for the railings and the students are all ending up with $1,000 scholarships to college out of it. I’m told this was the superintendent’s idea. (Kokomo’s superintendent grew up in Corydon in my county and his wife actually still works part time in Laconia, the tiny town where I grew up!)
Eric mentioned the school district’s International Baccalaureate program. But I don’t believe he mentioned that they also run an exchange student program. IIRC, students from 15 countries attend high school in Kokomo, and a number of them are actually housed in dormitories in downtown Kokomo. This injects life into downtown and creates a more international flavor in the city. I didn’t take pictures, but the school district is also renovating a 1914 vintage auditorium back to its original design that will be very cool (and also paid for without recourse to debt).
Trails and bumpouts have a fairly limited cost, but the city is also doing some bigger ticket items including two recently-constructed fire stations, a million dollar renovation of city hall, a parking garage, and a baseball stadium. Pictures of those in a moment but it’s worth ask how the city was able to pay for them without debt.
The first is that there was no legacy debt. I’m not anti-debt in all cases, but if a mature city like Kokomo is saddled with heavy debt repayments, that’s not good. By not having any legacy debt, the city’s tax base isn’t encumbered by repayments. A good part of our federal deficit these days is simply interest on our gargantuan debt load. That’s a dynamic Kokomo avoided. (The city does have some utility debt, but it’s revenue bond type stuff).
Secondly, the mayor says that he was able to reduce the city’s workforce by close to 20%, going from 521 employees just before he took office to only 415 today. That’s a significant reduction, especially given the fact that during that time the city annexed seven square miles and added 11,000 new residents (though some of them were already receiving some city services). Some of this was achieved through efficiencies. For example, the city went to single side garbage pickup, where all garbage is collected on one side of the street, eliminating the need for trucks to traverse each street twice. The mayor, council members, and department heads have also had a pay freeze during that time, with at least some time in there in which all city employees had their pay frozen during the recession. Keep in mind, the city experienced a severe revenue crunch during the auto bankruptcies, and Chrysler, the town’s largest employer, failed to pay its tax bill. This created an urgent need for cuts.
It’s possible the cuts and freezes have gone too far. I don’t know the full history of what has happened to services. But I speculate that having something like this can potentially act like a forest fire. It allows for longer term, healthier growth, whereas continuous growth in employees and compensation over time leads to serious fiscal problems.
In any case, these reductions freed up cash flow as the city recovered, letting Kokomo allocate a decent chunk of its revenues to capital investment. This is running at about 5% of the overall budget, plus an additional sizable sum (for a city of that size) from an economic development tax. This is an example of the cut to invest strategy in action. Without the cuts and tight budget management, there would be no money to invest. Indeed, some other Indiana community have found themselves asking questions like “what fire station should we close?” as they feel the sting of decline and tax caps.
Here are a few more photos, then some additional observations. Here’s that parking garage I mentioned. (This was originally debt financed, but the city paid off the bonds early when it decided to borrow for the baseball stadium).
This supposedly has some all day free parking, designed to attract downtown employees. There’s also going to be apartments on the top floor. It looks like there’s no ground floor retail, however, which will create a bit of a dead zone.
Here’s the YMCA construction site across the street. You can see the old Y in the background:
A painted railroad viaduct on Sycamore St. heading into downtown:
An alley treatment:
The baseball stadium under construction:
Here’s a picture of an older style public housing building. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s done in a traditional duplex style reminiscent of early suburbia.
Here’s a new development in a more urban form next door:
I think the fenestration is poor which gives the design a public housing look. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the city is even thinking about the design of public housing downtown as part of its strategy. After all, why shouldn’t public housing residents get to take advantage of high quality urbanism downtown like everyone else?
Overall, I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.
When I talked to the mayor about this he took the long view, saying that Columbus, Indiana has been at its architecture program for decades, that Indy’s sports strategy is 40 years old, etc. Substantive change takes time. For example, Mayor Goodnight says it isn’t realistic to think that older workers who commute in to Kokomo will uproot themselves out of their established lives in other communities and relocate. But he’s more hopeful that as workers retire and are replaced, he’ll capture the “next generation” labor force.
That’s obviously a more realistic ambition. But will an impatient public buy it? We’ll see. Clearly Goodnight has his critics. More than one of them has dubbed him the “King of Kokomo.” A newspaper article fretted about gentrification (level of realistic concern about that: zero). I didn’t do a deep dive into the other side, so keep that in mind reading this. But the baseball stadium would appear to be the most controversial item as near as I detect.
Regardless of any controversy, when you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.
Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014
City slogans and songs are notoriously cheesy and no one locally even likes them. Ira Glass of This American Life heard that there was an exception to this rule in Calgary. The first segment of this show below is the almost unreal story of what happened when they looked into this. There’s a short promo at the beginning to get through first. If the embed doesn’t display, listen at the show’s web site.
Thursday, June 26th, 2014
My post Sunday on Dallas in transition put the development of the metroplex into context. Today I want to zoom in and look more specifically at the experience of Dallas from the standpoint of a visitor attending a downtown event. This is a critical experience to get right because that and transiting through DFW may be the only experiences people from outside the city have with it, and it can be determinant in creating an impression.
I first visited Dallas in 2007, and gave the city’s downtown experience a failing grade, writing:
What I’m saying is not intended to be reflective of Dallas as a whole. I hear it has very nice neighborhoods, upscale shopping, excellent restaurants, etc. But based on my convention experience, Dallas is possibly the single most disappointing city I’ve ever visited.
It starts with a long, dreary, and very expensive cab ride from the airport to downtown Dallas. As if your wallet doesn’t take enough of a beating, you drive past miles and miles of sprawl hell, auto dealers, strip centers, distribution centers, fast food restaurants, etc. lining both sides of the road into town. It seems like traditional urbanity drops off very rapidly outside of downtown Dallas, only a mere mile or two from the core, replaced by older sprawl. I expect this in smaller Midwestern burgs, but not in a metro area of almost 6 million. On the plus side, this drive takes you past Texas Stadium (unimpressive unless you are a Cowboys fan) and the new American Airlines basketball arena. I thought the arena was extremely nice and the highlight of the trip. It had a retro-20′s look that was reminiscent of an old London train shed done up in red brick – and I mean that as a compliment.
Downtown is full of drab, generic skyscrapers, many lit up with neon. The hotels I saw were likewise very generic. The Convention Center itself was not easily walkable from hotels, and so it took shuttles to get there. The building is a typical hulking concrete structure. Although near the similarly uninspiring Dallas city hall, the area around it appeared to be an urban wasteland. I’ve never seen such a desolate and deserted area in such a high profile downtown area before. What’s more, it was a 4-5 block walk from there to the core of downtown.
I actually made that walk, and once you get into the center of downtown proper, there is good density, pedestrians – albeit still a shockingly small number, and even a few older buildings, though I didn’t see any truly spectacular structures. A light rail line, called DART, runs through downtown, but the station I saw was deserted, as was the train that I saw stop there. I did see a few restaurants and a Starbucks, but nothing that looked like a major entertainment district. Admittedly, I did not have a guidebook, and I didn’t have time to walk up and down every block searching for interesting things – especially not over a mile from the convention center.
Given the size and affluence of the metro area, and the good things I know from talking to others that it has, I was very surprised to see the poor face it presents to people attending conventions there. This is the only time many people will ever see the city. It’s the first and last impression many folks will ever have of Dallas.
Has Dallas improved since then? Yes, but there’s still a long way to go. I’ll walk you through the experience, along with some specific suggestions for improvement.
The trip starts at the airport. DFW is very convenient to get into and out of. I flew out of Terminal C, which is serviceable architecturally, but was overcrowded. The foodservice choices are quite poor and this is one easy upgrade area for a city that wants to be a global powerhouse. Chili’s and Friday’s ought to be there, but they aren’t enough.
The cab ride is still steep – $70 according to one person I talked to who took it – but fortunately there are now transit options, with even better service on the way. But before I get to that I’ll mention the highlight of the airport, which is their ambassador’s program. This program has volunteers in cowboy hats who help direct people where they need to go, or with anything else. I took advantage of this to get directions to the train station. This sort of super-friendly and also useful introduction to the city is actually a great first impression, and especially good because it creates a human connection to the people of Dallas.
Airport Ambassador. Image via dfwairport.com
There are two transit options. One is the DART light rail system, which stops short of the airport at this point and requires you to take two buses to get there. I’m told a direct airport stop will be available later this year. I took the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter line linking Ft. Worth with Dallas that has a stop at the airport.
You take two buses to get to the train station as well, but they are free shuttle types. The journey to the station was half an hour and the train trip only twenty minutes with a fare of $5. However, it only runs once an hour or so, so you may have a wait at a station with no services or amenities. Light rail will surely prove more popular when there’s a direct connection. I found it interesting that the train was only two cars, has a human conductor, but still uses POP. What is that conductor doing if not punching tickets?
There are a handful of stops before downtown Dallas, none of them featuring any real sort of TOD until the second to last one. The train arrives as the smallish but well maintained Union Station:
I’d originally planned to cab it from the station to my hotel, but I decided to try walking instead. Good thing I was up for that since there were no cabs. It was a 20 minute or so walk to my hotel and my original thought is that I might pop into a restaurant for lunch on the way or something. However, the only real restaurants along my path were a diner right by the train station and a McDonald’s. It was a pretty bleak walk in a blazing hot sun, but certainly most destinations can be walked from the station.
The conference I was at took place at the Winspear Opera House, which is part of the Dallas Arts District I mentioned in my previous post. They’ve got north of a billion dollars in new facilities. The Opera House is a fantastic place to hold a meeting. It seats 2,300 people, so places like this are where I’d be looking to book high end business functions like global partner meetings for prestigious firms and such. It’s a massive upgrade from the convention center. (Dallas may have improved its convention center since 2007, but I didn’t visit it). When you’re inside the opera house you certainly do feel like you’re in a real global city.
The arts district itself is a bit Lincoln Centerish. The buildings are attractive but are in a plaza style layout that you wouldn’t want to visit if you didn’t have an event there. The DMA and other visual arts institutions at one end are an exception.
As you can see, there was no one here on the street during the day. The streets of downtown Dallas are pretty wide, with buildings that don’t address them well, and hold little pedestrian interest. I’m told most of the historic building fabric was obliterated long ago. Today’s downtown Dallas is quite a contrast with what used to be there.
Speaking of which, someone recently unearthed a video of downtown Dallas from 1939 – in color even. You can watch it on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display. The majority of the historic footage starts at 3:44.
The urban fabric of that era contrasts starkly with the city today. I’ll show a couple of examples in a moment.
Downtown Dallas has a ton of concrete and one thing they’ve focused on is creating green space in the city. Sunday I mentioned Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap that not only provides greenery, it creates part of a link between downtown and uptown. I walked over to it and given that it was 96 degrees and the rest of the city streets were mostly empty, I expected the park to be as well, but I was wrong:
Parts of the park were empty, mostly the ones without shade. But the water park was great (and has shade as you can see) and there were places with trees, such as the spot in the background where food trucks have parked, where people were hanging out:
There are also a couple of places serving adult beverages, including this restaurant with a canopy to keep out the sun where I enjoyed a bit of relaxation and people-watching:
Klyde Warren Park is definitely a highlight, and while certainly not cheap wasn’t ridiculously expensive as urban amenities go. I think it was less than $100 million dollars, including the freeway cap structure.
There’s also been a lot of residential construction in the central area. Residential uses were previously banned in downtown Dallas, but now there’s a bit of an increase in population. One example is the 42 story Museum Tower that is in the arts district and overlooks Klyde Warren Park:
So to checkpoint here, what we see is what I described previously: Dallas is putting major pieces on the board. It’s invested in the transit infrastructure, a major arts district, signature parks, and high profile residential development has started to sprout. These represent a pretty high dollar investment in stuff that a major city with aspirations mostly needs to have.
What’s missing is the connective tissue. It’s only a block or two from the arts district to Klyde Warren Park, but here’s the street you walk down:
It’s not just that the street is wide, it features a very poor design in which the uses are incredibly inhospitable to pedestrians. This isn’t legacy either – it’s the brand new stuff. Here’s how Museum Tower addresses that street:
Not good. I think we have to acknowledge that much of downtown Dallas is functionally an edge city because of designs like this. Until the designs change, there isn’t likely to be much pedestrian life.
This is where we need to take a step back and think about what Dallas needs. The streets of downtown today are clearly inhumane. However, I’m not sure the traditional urbanist prescriptions will work here. There’s a comparison of Dallas to New York in that 1939 video, and indeed the streets were bustling, but I’m not sure Dallas can ever go back to something like that.
For one thing, Dallas temperatures are very high. It was in the 90s and blazing sun every day I was there. This renders the city functionally unwalkable. I wanted to do a lot more exploring but just couldn’t because if I spent more than about 10-15 minutes outside I needed to take a shower.
When I tweeted this people kept talking about other places in the world with high temperatures. It may be that some places are acculturated to this, or too poor to afford air conditioning. But I actually didn’t even get a good counterexample once you factor in humidity. Some folks mentioned Seville, Spain, but the July dew point in Seville ranges from 51-66 while in Dallas it’s 64-72. That’s a big difference.
So walkability and urbanity is going to mean something different in a hot, Southern climate vs. northern cities. Think of that as challenge #1.
Challenge #2 is that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” approach requires modification for pedestrianization and quality of space. Richard Sennett, one of the speakers at New Cities, elsewhere observed that “When we design a street, for instance, so that buildings are set back from a street wall, the space left open in front is not truly public space. Instead, the building has been withdrawn from the street with people walking by tending to avoid these recessed spaces.”
How to fix this? In Sennett’s view it’s about scaling up from the small, not scaling down from the large. As he puts it, “I’m more interested in street furniture than starchitecture” and that one of the most interesting challenges to him is to design a “really good corner.”
Dallas is a place where whipping out the checkbook to hire a starchitect is in line with the DNA. Designing a high quality urban corner, not so much. This is why there are these fabulous major chess pieces, but the street level experience is poor.
Dallas must overcome this to realize its urban ambitions. The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Everybody treats the special civic spaces right. But what about the average street? What about the details of the feel of the city? This is the mark of greatness.
I suggest two steps for moving forward.
1. Create an authentic Dallas/Texas street experience. This means creating a climate appropriate design, and also figuring out how to work with, not against the culture of “bigger.”
I noticed that outdoor cafes at restaurants have misters, fans, trellises, etc. Maybe Dallas could figure out how to incorporate these sorts of designs into the streetcapes. Maybe the streets of Dallas should be colonnaded or covered with trellises full of greenery to provide shade. These structures could incorporate misters and fans or something. Implementing something unique like this at scale might be a way to channel that Texas ambition. Dallas shouldn’t be afraid to question the orthodoxy here. For example, Minneapolis has skywalks that render that downtown more pleasantly navigable during the brutal winters, even though skywalks are conventionally considered a negative. I’d look at what other cities have done. For example, study Singapore’s Orchard Road.
Secondly, channel the culture into an authentic way of expressing it with taste. At New Cities, Michael Tregoning talked about the design inspiration for the Joule Hotel as in part coming from Stanley Marcus, former chief of Dallas based Neiman Marcus. I visited the hotel and its design has a nice mix of some glitzier elements but done in a tasteful and classy way. That’s somewhat how I see Neimans, which manages to combine a bit of in your face flaunting of luxury with class and attention to details. Stanley Marcus was the first person to bring some French designers to America, for example. I suggest figuring out how to articulate and channel something like this into public space design.
So you take the Stanley Marcus approach and apply it to climate and contextually appropriate street designs, and do some pilots to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Dittos for the way buildings interact with the street. Once you nail it, then scale up, which Dallas does well.
2. Prioritize critical connective tissue. When Jeff Speck does an urban walkability plan, he maps out the high priorities corridors because you can’t fix everything at once.
I’d start with a more pleasant connection between the arts district and Klyde Warren Park, two recent major investments. Basically you want to map where people are likely to go, especially spaces between destinations where you want to get synergies or make a good first impression (such as the corridors coming out of Union Station). Improve the area around the arts district and focus on luring high end events there, and you can make a great impression on the out of towner.
To sum it up, while there have been noticeable upgrades to downtown Dallas in terms of major building blocks, the overall grade is still Incomeplete because the street level experience has not been addressed. Once that’s taken care of in at least a few zones, Dallas will present a much more impressive face to both the out of town visitor and local heading to downtown events alike.
Sunday, June 22nd, 2014
Dallas Skyline. Source: Wikipedia
I was in Dallas this past week for the New Cities Summit, so it’s a good time to post an update on the city.
I don’t think many of us realize the scale to which Sunbelt mega-boomtowns like Dallas have grown. The Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area is now the fourth largest in the United States with 6.8 million people, and it continues to pile on people and jobs at a fiendish clip.
Many urbanists are not fans of DFW, and it’s easy to understand why. But I think it’s unfair to judge the quality of a city without considering where it is at in its lifecycle. Dallas has been around since the 1800s, but the metroplex is only just now starting to come into its own as a region. It is still in the hypergrowth and wealth building stage, similar to where a place like Chicago was back in the late 19th century. Unsurprisingly, filthy, crass, money-grubbing, unsophisticated Chicago did not appeal to the sophisticates of its day either. But once Chicago got rich, it decided to get classy. Its business booster class endowed first rate cultural institutions like the Art Institute, and tremendous efforts were made to upgrade the quality of the city and deal with the congestion, pollution, substandard housing, and fallout from rapid growth, which threatened to choke off the city’s future success. At some point in its journey, Chicago reached an inflection point where it transitioned to a more mature state. One can perhaps see the 1909 Burnham Plan as the best symbol of this. In addition to addressing practical concerns like street congestion, the Burnham Plan also sought to create a city that could hold its own among the world’s elite. And you’d have to argue the city largely succeeded in that vision.
The DFW area is now at that transition point. They realize that as a city they need to be about more than just growth and money making. They need to have quality and they need to address issues in the system. Much like Burnham Plan era Chicago, this perhaps makes DFW a potentially very exciting place to be. It’s not everyday when you can be part of building a new aspirational future for a city that’s already been a successful boomtown. The locals I talked to were pretty pumped about their city and where it’s going.
How true this is I don’t know, but some people have attributed a change in mindset to the loss in the competition to land Boeing’s headquarters. Boeing ended up choosing Chicago over Dallas. In part this was because Chicago bought the business with lavish subsidies that far outclassed what Dallas put on the table. But it was also because Boeing saw Chicago as a more congenial environment for global company C-suite and other top executives to be, both from a lifestyle perspective and that of access to other globally elite firms and workers available in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the cracks in the DFW growth model were becoming apparent, especially in the core city of Dallas. Ten years ago the Dallas Morning News ran a series called “Dallas at a Tipping Point: A Roadmap For Renewal.” This series was underpinned by a report prepared by the consulting firm Booz Allen. This report is well worth reading by almost anyone today as it is a rare example of a city that was able to get insight and recommendations from the type of tier one strategy firm used by major corporations. Booz Allen was direct in their findings, though perhaps with a bit of hyperbole in the Detroit comparison:
Dallas stands at the verge of entering a cycle of decline…On its current path, Dallas will, in the next 20 years, go the way of declining cities like Detroit – a hollow core abandoned by the middle class and surrounded by suburbs that outperform the city but inevitably are dragged down by it.
If the City of Dallas were a corporate client, we would note that it has fallen significantly behind its competitors. We would warn that its product offering is becoming less and less compelling to its core group of target customers…We would further caution the management that they are in an especially dangerous position because overall growth in the market…is masking the depth of its underlying problems. We would explain that in our experience, companies in fast growing markets are often those most at risk because they frequently do not realize they are falling behind until the situation is irreversible.
Put into the language of business, we would note that Dallas is under-investing in its core product, has not embraced best practices throughout its management or operations, and is fast becoming burdened by long term liabilities that could bankrupt the company if the market takes a downturn.
The city responded in a number of ways, some of which were similar to Chicago at its inflection point. Many of these involve various urbanist “best practices” or conventional wisdom type trends.
By far the most important of these was adopting modern statistically driven policing approaches. As crime plummeted in places like New York during the 1990s, Dallas did not see a decline of its own. But with the expansion of police headcount and adoption of new strategies by new police chief David Kunkle in 2004 – and no doubt some help from national trends – crime fell steeply during the 2000s. The Dallas Morning News says that the city’s violent and property crime rates fell by a greater percentage than any other city with over one million residents over the last decade. In 2013, Dallas had its overall lowest crime rate in 47 years.
This is critical because nothing else matters without safe streets. I’ve had many a jousting match with other urbanists on discussion boards about where crime falls on the list of priorities. In my view it’s clearly #1 – even more so than education. It’s simply a prerequisite to almost any other systemic good happening in your cities. Students can’t learn effectively if they live and attend school in dangerous environments, for example. NYU economist Paul Romer made this point forcefully in his New Cities keynote, saying that fighting crime is the most important function of government and that if you don’t deliver on crime control your city will go into decline. Fortunately, Dallas seems to have gotten the message.
But there’s been attention to physical infrastructure as well. The area has built America’s largest light rail system (which was in the works since the early 1980s).
Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail train. Source: Wikipedia
Both the city and region remain fundamentally auto-centric, however, and this is unlikely to change.
There’s been a significant investment in quality green spaces. A major initiative called the Trinity River Project is designed to reclaim the Trinity River corridor through the city as a recreational amenity. This is underway but proceeding slowing. Among the aspects of the project is a series of three planned signature bridges designed by Santiago Calatrava. The only one completed is the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.
The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Downtown Dallas. Designed by Santiago Calatrava. Source: Wikipedia
The single bridge tower is quite an imposing presence on the skyline. However, the size of the bridge creates an awkward contrast with the glorified creek that is the Trinity River. It looks to me like they significantly over-engineered what should have been a fairly straightforward flood plain to span just so they could create a major structure.
Another green space project – and the best thing I saw in my trip to Dallas – is Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap. About half the cost came from $50 million donations. I’ll be going into more detail on this in my next installment, but here’s a teaser photo:
Klyde Warren Park. Source: Wikipedia
The Calatrava bridge shows that Dallas has embraced the starchitect trend. This was also on display in the creation of the Dallas Arts District. Complementing the Dallas Museum of Art are a billion dollars worth of starchitect designed facilities including Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center, IM Pei’s symphony center, Norman Foster’s Winspear Opera House, and OMA’s Wyly Theatre.
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Designed by OMA’s Joshua Prince-Ramus (partner in charge) and Rem Koolhaas
This arts district – which naturally Dallas boasts is the world’s largest – along with the other major investments that were funded with significant private contributions show a major advantage Texas metros like DFW and Houston have: philanthropy. These are new money towns on their way up and local billionaires are willing to open their wallets bigtime in an attempt to realize world class ambitions, exactly the way Chicago’s did all those decades back.
By contrast many northern tier cities are dependent on legacy philanthropy, such as foundations set up in an era when they were industrial power houses. This is a dwindling inheritance. What’s more, what wealthy residents they do have are as likely to be taking money out of their cities through cash for cronies projects than they are to be putting it in. Thus they can be a negative not positive influence.
This shows the importance of wealth building in cities. Commercial endeavors can appear crass or greedy at times, and deservedly so. But without wealth, you can’t afford to do anything. There’s a reason Dallas could build America’s largest light rail system – it had the money to do so. Similarly with this performing arts district. To be a city of ambition requires that a place also be an engine of wealth generation.
I’m sure that Dallas’ moneyed elite are well taken care of locally and exert outsized influence on decision making. I don’t want to make them out to be puristic altruists. But they’ve shown they are willing to open their wallets in a serious way, something that’s not true everywhere.
This is a flavor of what Dallas has been up to. It’s too early to say whether the city will make the same transition Chicago did. Its greatest challenge also awaits some time in the future. When DFW’s hypergrowth phase ends and the city must, like New York and Chicago before it, reinvent itself for a new age, that’s when we will find out if DFW has what it takes to join the world’s elite, or whether it will fade like a flower as Detroit and so many other places did.
Toyota did just announce it’s moving 3,500 jobs to north suburban Plano. But corporations have long seen Dallas a place for large white collar operations. Boeing was what I call an “executive headquarters” – a fairly small operation consisting of only the most senior people. I haven’t seen Dallas win any of these as of yet.
The Dallas Morning News takes a somewhat mixed view on the city itself. They just did a special section called “Future Dallas: Making Strides, Facing Challenges,” the title of which sums it up. Dallas has put a lot of pieces on the board and made major progress on areas like crime, but it’s failed to make a dent in others, such as Booz Allen’s call to make the city more attractive to middle class families. Poverty is actually up since then, and the city is increasingly unequal in its income distribution. Dallas is not unique in that, but that’s cold comfort.
Despite gigantic regional growth, the city’s population has been nearly flat. Despite the vaunted Texas and DFW jobs engine, Dallas County has lost about 100,000 jobs since 2000. The core is clearly continuing in relative decline, and the Dallas County job losses are particularly troubling. I’m no believer in this idea that everybody is going to abandon the suburbs and head back to the city. But as former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut put it, you can’t be a suburb of nowhere. If the core loses economic vitality, the entire DFW regional will take a hit to its growth.
I highlighted some of what Dallas has accomplished recently, as well as continued areas of concern. On Thursday I’ll be back with another installment taking at look at downtown and the visitor experience.
Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
This week another city marketing campaign designed to attract residents, this one from Houston. Their tag line is “The City With No Limits” and they have a web site with that URL. There are also TV ads, etc. to go with it.
If there’s a city in America that has a truly distinct take on urbanism, it’s probably Houston. And Texas is a place with a clearly distinct vision of itself and presence within the American mind. Yet how does Houston choose to market itself? As just another member of the generic checklist club. The video below will give you a flavor. If the video doesn’t display, click over to my site.
With Houston’s traditional focus on being the “opportunity city” you’d think that some portrayal of how opportunity uniquely plays out in the city would be front and center. But it’s not. Other than links to corporate job sites, there’s really nothing on opportunity in Houston. It’s just spin on lifestyle. But if fashion shows, ballet, and light rail are your thing, is Houston really going to be your top choice? I’m skeptical. The Houston selling point is economic opportunity, but it’s only weakly presented. Other than facile fillips like the moon landing, little sense of the distinctiveness, culture, or value proposition of Houston and Texas come through here. The video and campaign also don’t convey any strong sense of limitless. In fact, my takeaway is that life in Houston operates within the exact same confines as virtually every other major city.
I’d have to rate this one as a miss, which is particularly disappointing in light of the “opportunity” presented by Houston to get it right and their willingness to cut against the grain in other areas. It just goes again to prove my axiom that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly like every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.
I don’t blame the agencies that create these things, by the way. I’ve done quite a bit of thinking and analysis and believe the underlying problems are structural and embedded in the initiative from the word Go. I may post more on this later.
Wednesday, June 11th, 2014
While I was in Columbus the other week I didn’t just interview the mayor, I also was interviewed by Columbus Underground, and the transcript of our discussion is now available online. Lots of stuff in there is not specific to Columbus, so it’s good reading even if you don’t live there.
Also, Experience Columbus, the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, is launching a campaign targeting 25-35 year olds in cities like Chicago and Washington, DC. They are going to be running ads in those cities, etc. with the idea of attracting those people to Columbus.
They also put up a site for that audience called Life in Columbus which is mostly content aggregated from various community sources like Columbus Underground, and thus is always changing. But the centerpiece of the site is a one minute video about the city, which I’ll present here without commentary. If the video doesn’t display for you, watch at Vimeo.
Sunday, June 1st, 2014
After my “Checking In On Columbus” post last week I was surprised that quite a number of people in Columbus, though a minority, took great exception to it and posted a number of negative comments about the post and me. I had thought it was a mostly positive take and I’m long on record has being bullish about the city and its future.
I asked someone I knew there about this and he suggested that Columbus had a history of insecurity, highlighting an incident a while back in which, upon visiting a fantastic Japanese restaurant in a suburban strip mall for an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, Columbus native Michael Ruhlman made a throwaway remark about it being surprising to find such a place in “Applebee’s country.” This provoked quite a firestorm of blowback in Columbus, leading Ruhlman to respond that he was only referring to the suburban setting, not Columbus as a whole, or so he claimed. Earlier this year the Columbus Dispatch, saying that “if there’s one activity Columbus loves, it’s cheerleading,” reported on a Reddit forum created as a safe place for unpopular opinions about Columbus.
When people who highlight good things about Columbus but aren’t 100% positive about it are attacked, that will hardly inspire anyone from out of town to want to cover the place. But beyond that it shows that Columbus is still laboring under insecurity about itself, for not much good reason if you ask me given that the city is very solid. It also shows this is a place unaccustomed to out of town press beyond the always positive travel piece genre.
I bring this up because today is my promised post about branding Columbus. Changing and elevating the brand position of a city or a company in the market is difficult in the best of times. It really challenges us to get out of our comfort zone. These experiences suggest – and I do mean suggest as I don’t want to read to much into limited data points – Columbus may not be ready to take that step. And it might explain why I hear leaders voice some of the same frustrations today that they did three and a half years ago.
If a city can’t accept any judgments from the marketplace that deviate from its self-perception, it’s going to be hard to move that market. Also, when you want to be known on a first name basis nationally, big a “world class city,” seen as a top tier urban player, etc. the scrutiny and the expectations are just going to be at a higher level. You can believe everything that happens in New York gets put under the microscope and poked at by people near and far. If you want to play at that level you have to accept that, flash in the pan hot cities of the moment excepted, there’s actually going to be more negativity about you than when the rest of the world didn’t care much about who you were. It comes with the territory.
As for my post, I corrected my misspelling of Franklinton and am happy to correct any other factual errors. It’s also clear that my perceptions are rooted in only a short visit. Nevertheless, I stand behind what I wrote.
What Is Your Ambition?
One of the Twitter responses to my post from someone named Craig Calcaterra brings up an interesting point, however:
Guy says Columbus has "yet to develop a compelling, unique brand positioning." And acts like that's a problem. http://t.co/PHbfZlwS62
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) May 29, 2014
The truth is that Columbus doesn’t have a powerful brand in the market outside of Ohio. Having said that, the city is growing rapidly in population and jobs, is extremely livable and improving day by day, and seems to make its residents very happy. Is there any reason the city has to be better nationally known in order to be complete or something?
I say No. As I said in my 2010 talk, there’s nothing really wrong with what the city is today. It’s a valid choice to simply stay with the status quo.
But while many citizens may indeed feel that way, the city’s leadership doesn’t. This was hammered home in a 2010 New York Times piece on the city’s rebranding efforts. That desire to be seen as a high caliber city at the national level clearly came through in my most recent trip, even from Mayor Coleman himself.
So I’ve been operating on the assumption that’s what the city wants. But it’s certainly not the only valid answer. I also tend to be personally biased towards high ambition, particularly in a place where it’s obvious that the ambition can be realized. Places like Detroit and Cleveland are really struggling to rebound from severe problems. And no matter how successful they are at it, they’ll never been as important and prominent places to the comparative level that they used to be.
By contrast, Columbus is both operating from a baseline of strength, and also at a point where it is still on the way up as a city. Whatever the deficiencies in its marketplace recognition, Columbus has never been a larger, more important, more prominent city in the world than it is right now – and it has the potential to reach still higher. For so many cities, their glory days will forever be behind them. But Columbus has the opportunity for its glory days to be ahead of it. Not every city and not every generation is granted the opportunity that Columbus has right now. So before taking a pass on going after it, think hard about it. Be sure you’re comfortable asking the “What if…?” questions years down the road.
Finding Columbus’ Mojo
But assuming the answer is go for it, then what needs to be done? I previously talked about the need to go beyond the checklist. Today I’ll more about the how to get there.
As I said, the first is to really be committed to change and going after the brass ring. Because I can tell you, this is not an easy journey to make. Some of the things you are going to have to do are really, really hard because they involve looking those civic insecurities right in the eyes, and also questioning perhaps your most fundamental and cherished truths, especially the truth about what you’re best at.
It’s very hard for cities to admit where they are weak, but it can actually be even harder for them to admit where they are strong.
One of the sayings of the Greek oracle was “Know Thyself.” Sage wisdom, indeed. Knowledge of yourself is often the most difficult to come by but valuable of commodities. Because as the saying goes, “Without awareness there is no choice.”
Where does a city get knowledge of itself that’s useful for branding? I argue it very often comes from the past. Cities didn’t just take their present form overnight. They are the process of a long process of growth and change. In particular, the founding ethos of a place profoundly stamps its character, usually in a permanent way. The Dutch trading culture and spirit of openness of New Amsterdam is still present in contemporary New York, for example.
When a new creative director comes in to revive a failing fashion house, what’s the first thing he does? He goes to the archives. He investigates the history of the house. What does this brand stand for? Who were the people who founded it? How did they become who they were? What happened along the journey of that house?
To use a hackneyed phrase, that new creative director wants to understanding the “Brand DNA,” and the key to the brand DNA is in the past.
I think that’s as true of Columbus as anyplace. Columbus certainly had good luck in getting where it is today, but I’d argue there’s more to it. One of their historical keys to success was a fateful decision in the 1950s to pursue an aggressive annexation strategy. You can say that was one mayor’s choice, but I believe the fact that it happened in Columbus and not elsewhere in Ohio was already signalling that there was something different about the city. What is it?
Midwestern cities always profoundly struggle with questions of identity. What is the identity of Ohio? It can be hard to articulate. Yet visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and it’s clear they are three radically different cities. It hits you immediately. It’s like a cold bucket of water in the face. But we have trouble putting that uniqueness into words.
Why is Columbus an outlier in Ohio? How did it get that way? Why did Columbus choose to annex? How and why did Columbus become so gay-friendly ahead of many other cities?
There are tons of questions, but at the end of the day what you want to do is distill down the essence of the city’s mojo, Austin Powers style. And when you have that vial of mojo, that’s the secret sauce on which you build your future brand presence in the marketplace.
This is cultural spelunking. It’s an anthropological, archeological, historical deep dive into a city, its people and its culture. I’d suggest tapping into Ohio State’s cultural anthropology resources. There might even be a dissertation in it for someone.
One you have the mojo, you not only use it to build the future reality, you also sell it by telling the story of Columbus to the world. You need to create an aspirational narrative of the city that people can imagine themselves being a part of.
Think of the story of New York. TV shows like Friends, Sienfield, and Sex and the City have created a contemporary positive narrative of life in New York. People know what it’s about. If you can make it there, etc. (This wasn’t always the case. Escape from New York, Death Wish, and Fort Apache the Bronx told quite a different narrative in a previous era). Portlandia tells a story about the place where young people go to retire. Think about the Bay Area, LA, Miami, etc. and the stories come to our heads without much thinking.
What’s that story of life in Columbus? You create that story around the authentic mojo of the city.
Beyond finding the mojo, there’s another key task that goes along with the investigation. That’s finding the missing or defective genes in the civic DNA that have been or will sabotage the city’s ambitions.
Everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether or not we know what’s on ours. When I was working in corporate America I’d tell people working for me that they should be expecting me to be giving them 3-5 substantive things that they need to improve on to make to the next level. My thought process is this: if I’m getting nothing but glowing feedback from my boss, if I’ve got nothing I need to get better at, why am I not the CEO of this company? Clearly, there’s a reason why I am where I am and not the President of the United States or something. If I’m not giving that same tough feedback to my own reports, I’m not doing them any favors.
It’s similar for cities. When a defect is external and easy to fix – say, building bike infrastructure – we tend to be pretty open to hearing it. But when things start getting into our character, our behaviors, things that are more personal in nature, it’s a lot harder. It gets uncomfortable. We’re probably blind to what others are seeing and thinking. We probably can’t see it ourselves. Change can be really, really hard. I dare say nearly every top level executive in America has turned to outside, professional coaching for at least some things they needed to get right. As my old boss once put it, even Tiger Woods has a coach. If elite athletes need coaches, how much more aspiring cities? That’s why I say the Ohio State history and anthropology departments might be good resources.
So Columbus needs to understand not just checklist items it is missing like a major transit investment, but also cultural items that are holding the city back and what they are rooted in. Then it can attack them with a change program that can hopefully work, like the civic equivalent of therapy.
On a related note though methodologically different, the city needs to be willing to take a hard look in the mirror and realistic assess its assets and accomplishments and how compelling they are in the market. The cold reality is that while Columbus is a great city in many ways and has lots of great stuff, what it has doesn’t add up to a nationally or globally compelling story. You need to take the marketing glasses off and ask how people who aren’t in or from the city are are going to see things.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you recategorize your assets as bad. But you have to understand that checklist items that lots of other cities are doing (e.g., bike infrastructure) are probably not going to set the city apart in the marketplace. If you don’t have it, you’re in trouble. But if you do, it doesn’t win the game. These things are just the new urban ante.
Illustrative Applied Examples
I want to give a quick examples – and let me stress this is provisional and speculative to some extent – illustrating these three points.
On the mojo front, the city’s previous branding effort that identified “smart” and “open” as two key civic attributes is right on in my view. It’s a good start. But why is Columbus open? That is, why is it easier for newcomers to acclimate, penetrate networks, accomplish things, etc. in Columbus than in many other places?
I speculate it’s rooted in being the state capital and is one legitimate advantage of that. I’ve seen a similar trait in other capitals. I speculate that because people from all over the state are coming to Columbus on political business, and because there’s always churn in elected office, civic networks don’t become closed and calcify in a sort of “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown” effect.
For the missing gene example, I think it’s very possible that one reason Columbus didn’t create a compelling, unique product in the market is that it doesn’t have the civic mentality to do so. It’s just not in the civic DNA. One local leader I talked to speculated that the city’s values were shaped by those of Ohio State football and Woody Hayes. That is, the secret to success is to work relentlessly at the fundamentals and always be pounding the ball ahead with the running game – “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Not exactly the West Coast Offense. This may be too facile, but it is clear that Columbus excels at the fundamentals, at the blocking and tackling of city stuff, but hasn’t thrown the civic equivalent of the long bomb. This may be a DNA issue.
For the asset evaluation example, I think Columbus needs to be realistic about Ohio State’s stature. Ohio State is a great school, but it’s not Harvard or Stanford. I went to Indiana University and I’d say the same about them. Now, obviously you’d never come out in public and downplay Ohio State, which legitimately is a power house for the city. But you don’t want to mistakenly believe it’s doing to spawn the next Cambridge or Palo Alto without some major change either.
It’s Cow Town, Jake
I said earlier that it can be harder to acknowledge your strengths as a city than your weaknesses. My belief is that is doubly true for Columbus. To truly discover the secret of its mojo, Columbus needs to be willing to stare into the abyss of cow town.
Talk to people in Columbus and you’ll hear them claim that they are not a “cow town” anymore or how people used to refer to them as a “cow town.” I have seen this as an analogy to the case of Indianapolis and “naptown.” I’ve always doubted that hardly anyone outside of Indianapolis itself ever used the term Naptown historically as an insult. No one would ever have cared enough about the city to even bother insulting it.
Similarly, I’d never heard the term cow town until somebody from Columbus told me about it. I strongly doubt it’s ever really been a term of derision nationally, but it’s possible it was for some people in Ohio. I definitely know there’s a strain of Cincinnatian who loves heaping abuse on places like Columbus and Indy. As Columbus has grown while other cities in Ohio wandered in the wilderness, it’s easy for me to believe there’s been a lot of sniping. So while the market would never think of Columbus as cow town, there may be some legitimate in state reasons for them to be sensitive to the term.
The impression I get, again provisional based on my limited experience, is that in an attempt to rid itself of the stigma of being a cow town, Columbus has sheared off its past, in effect repudiating everything that happened before 1990 or 2000.
I observed to Mayor Coleman that Indianapolis in recent years has downplayed the 500 Mile Race. I asked him whether or not Columbus was similarly neglecting its greatest brand asset in the market by downplaying Ohio State football. He said, “No. There was a time in the 60s and 70s and the 80s, and even the 90s, where Columbus was nothing but Ohio State football. And I love the Buckeyes; I love the football team. It’s better than any professional team in the state of Ohio. And they’re still amateurs. That’s good. But having said that, Columbus is no longer just the Ohio State football team. We don’t view ourselves that way anymore [emphasis added].”
This is just one statement but it seems consistent with what I hear from other people. There’s an embedded idea here that there’s little to nothing of value in the city’s past and in fact that past is something to be embarrassed about or outgrown. I have never heard anyone from Columbus brag about their city and tout it for anything related to the past, apart from historic architecture. There may be historical things that are mentioned, but they are seen as valuable in reference to what is happening today. For example, the mayor went on to talk about the importance of Ohio State in terms of its contemporary research impact. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a city talk less about its heritage. I’m certain there is a proud heritage worth of celebrating, but I haven’t heard about it from people there. That lack of historic rooting may be one reason why the city can come across as somewhat generic.
As I’ve noted before, this is normal for us to go through. When we go off to college, Mom puts our high school letter jacket up in the attic. We try as hard as we can to fit in at the new level, and treat the stuff we left behind as little kids stuff.
But eventually we become comfortable in our own skin. We learn who we are and what we stand for, and we stop becoming so concerned about what other people think of us. Of course we are social creatures and will never stop caring about others’ perceptions of us. We keep growing and yes, follow fashions. But we find a healthier balance.
The same is true of cities. And as I noted at the top, from the insecurity I sense I’m not sure Columbus is far enough along in its growth path to really be comfortable being itself, and acknowledging and embracing its past.
This doesn’t mean Columbus should be or ever was a cow town. What it does mean is that things from its past that Columbus thinks are cow town are actually its strongest brand assets and things to be proud of and build its future on.
Let’s give some examples. The Midwest has a history of local, low grade lager brands. Virtually all of these were abandoned and ceased production. The hip, cool thing to do was to drink microbrews, not even Bud or Miller Lite, to say nothing of Sterling (my dad’s brand).
Then one day the hipsters on the coasts started drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and all of a sudden back in the Midwest, we started drinking it too and now are relaunching or re-embracing all those old blue collar brands (including Sterling). The same thing happened with workwear clothing, which is now selling for quite a premium in some places and very popular among the Bearded Ones.
In effect, we had to re-import our own heritage after a bunch of other people elsewhere saw the value in it – the same heritage we rejected as “cow town.”
The clearest example of this is agriculture. The Midwest is all about ag. Ohio State is a huge ag power house. Columbus could have owned urban agriculture, farm to table, organics, etc. But it didn’t. And now it’s doing them, but it’s doing them as the follower, not the leader. It’s also listed “AgBioScience” as one of its economic clusters, but that’s an industry it could have gone after a long, long time ago.
Unfortunately, it was impossible for Columbus to ever have embraced agriculture until it had been reduced to a checklist item because to do so would have meant almost literally embracing “cow town.” It had to wait until the cognoscenti pronounced it safe. But then it was too late.
This is one of the tragedies of the Midwest. We turned away from our heritage and a bunch of guys in Brooklyn bought it from a thrift store for a song.
The South avoided this. Look at Nashville. Did they turn their back on country music as “cow town”? No, they embraced it as central to their identity past, present, and future. Of course they are more than country. But they kept it front and center. But they also updated it. It’s not the old AM radio country. It’s not Hee Haw. They respect those people and institutions and see them as in continuity with today, but they have evolved. Today’s it’s glitzier, more Hollywood. It’s “Nashvegas.” Think Carrie Underwood, not Minnie Pearl.
This is what it means to know thyself and build the future out of the authentic mojo of the past. Columbus surely has many things in its past and in its historic civic character that are of immense value. The question and the challenge to the city is being willing to find out what those are and own and embrace them and champion them as a key part of the mojo on which it will build its future reality and aspirational civic narrative.
I believe the potential is right there. The question is whether the city is ready and willing to step up and grab it.