Thursday, March 6th, 2014
Trailer for CNN series “Chicagoland” – click here if the video does not display.
As part of his plan to boost sagging ratings at the network, CNN chief Jeff Zucker commissioned an eight part reality series about Chicago and its mayor called Chicagoland that premiers tonight at 10pm ET. The show is produced by the same people who did the Brick City series about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support from mega-star executive producer Robert Redford.
Rahm and the Media
Given that Brick City seems to have only helped Booker’s reputation, cynics in Chicago have already noted the fact that show’s producers are represented by the William Morris Endeavor Agency, which just so happens to be the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari. This is as much because of as in spite of a well-publicized move by directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin to ask the agency to recuse themselves from representing them when it comes to the show.
One need not believe in such a conspiracy to see this show as yet another example of Rahm’s media power – and his fearlessness in pursuing high profile opportunities to get his message out even in venues where he’s not in complete control. Rahm has had significant success in getting high profile national and global attention – for example, a glowing profile from NYT columnist Thomas Friedman – since taking office. He didn’t shy away from getting out there even when a spike in murders made global headlines Chicago of the type Chicago didn’t want – a time when many mayors would have crawled into their bunkers. And although he’s been in office a while now, Rahm fatigue seems not to have set in. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has a lengthy piece on him in the March issue of Esquire with the colorful title of “And Now For the Further Adventures of Rahm the Imapler.” The Financial Times recently ran a mostly positive piece called “Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America.” It even includes a high production quality six and a half minute video that will give you a flavor of it (if the video doesn’t display, click here):
With his ambition for Chicago as a global city, Rahm clearly sees global media as the ones that really count. Chicago’s status as a media center afterthought means few out of town reporters actually know that much about the city, hence Rahm has a huge opportunity to shape the message. This must infuriate the local media, which to a great extent Rahm is free to ignore because of his ability to go direct at the national and global level. Chicagoland should thus be seen as part of Rahm’s global media push, both for Chicago and for himself.
Reality TV vs. Journalism
The series is probably as good for Rahm and the city as it could possible get. Certainly the problems – high crime, poor schools, and labor troubles – are not glossed over. But given that they’ve been well publicized globally, it’s hard to imagine how they could be without sacrificing all credibility. Within the context of realism, this is a big win for the city.
Whether it’s a big win for journalism is another story. Like most modern documentaries or reality TV shows, Chicagoland is non-fiction in a sense, but also heavily scripted and edited to provide a compelling narrative. This makes for great TV drama and characterizations, but whether it represents truth as a reporter would tell it is much more doubtful.
Just as one example, the producers clearly had extensive access to Rahm and he’s frequently shown as concerned about crime, battling with unions, boosting the local economy, talking to school kids and even mentoring an inner city kid he brought on as an intern. But is that a fair representation of how Rahm Emanuel spends his time? The Chicago Reader did a two part series analyzing Rahm Emanuel’s schedule and published a two part series about it called “The Mayor’s Millionaire Club” (see part one and part two). They show that access to Rahm is heavily dependent on your wealth, influence, and donations. Yet that doesn’t come through in Chicagoland at all. Instead when the occasional powerful people are shown, they are always doing a good turn for the city, such as a group of tech executives donating products to schools.
I’m not suggesting this series should have been a bulldog investigative piece. However, I strongly suspect that CNN’s actual journalists will be seething at seeing their network and its relative strong reputation being used for what is clearly not the type of work they themselves would undertake. Right or wrong, the CNN brand carries an expectation of a certain type of journalistic standard than the Sundance Channel (where Brick City originally ran) doesn’t. Right now on CNN’s Chicagoland page there’s an ad for Anderson Cooper 360. Something tells me that were Anderson Cooper in charge of Chicagoland, it would look quite different.
Compelling Drama and Characters
However, taken on the terms of a Sundance series, Chicagoland succeeds, and my guess is that Rahm will be overall pleased. The show sets up the drama by structuring the series as battles between opposing forces. In the first couple episodes, this is the battle between Rahm and Chicago Public Schools leadership on the one hand, and the teachers union and some affected parent groups on the other over plans by CPS to shutter 50 schools. Frankly, I thought it overly portrayed Chicago as if it were Newark. The segments were introduced by short positive vignettes of some aspect of Chicago (like the Stanley Cup playoffs), followed by more extensive coverage of the school closing dispute, and educational and crime problems in Chicago’s impoverished South Side. It would be like doing a flyby of Times Square before doing a deep dive on some of the worst blocks in Newark. While I myself have written on the two Chicagos theme, I was feeling that Chicago was being unfairly stigmatized.
I need not have worried. After the initial focus on the school closing dispute, the focus shifts. The drama is now between the good guys (basically every single person featured in the show) and the bad guys (gangsters and such who exist almost entirely offscreen, or so we’re led to believe). Almost without exception, the good guy characters are shown as 100% white knight types. Instead of positive vignettes followed by something Newarkesque, there’s a more balanced take in time allocation and the threads start merging across the two Chicagos. The show also starts laying the Chicago sales job on with a trowel. In Chicagoland’s coverage of things like the food scene, the music scene, the comedy clubs, or even footage of Rahm protesting a neo-Nazi march back in the 70s as a teenager, it’s hard to see how this could have been any more positive in its portrayal of the city if it had been produced directly by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. This is a huge win for the city.
The show also manages to create several compelling characters. One of them is the surgeon who leads the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital, a job I certainly would not want. How that guy manages to balance family life in Roscoe Village (my old neighborhood) with the reality of what he deals with every night at his job is beyond me.
But the star of the show is clearly Elizabeth Dozier, principal at Fenger High School in the South Side neighborhood at Roseland. She’s shown fighting not only to only educate her students, but keep them safe over the summer, and even invest in their lives after graduation when they get in trouble. (Dozier trying to help a former student who’s in jail for robbery realistically shows the need for “retail” 1:1 or N:1 investment in the lives of specific troubled people, not just programs, to make a real difference in a troubled person’s life – and even so the difficulty in seeing life change happen). Her obvious passion and dedication in the face of tough odds clearly come through. Yet even here there’s a sense of manufacture. Dozier is a young, attractive, stylish black professional who not only runs a South Side High School, but also gets personal face time with Rahm, knows Grant Achutz of Alinea, and hangs out with Billy Dec on his boat. How much of this A-list hob-nobbing was happening prior to Chicagoland coming to town I wonder? Regardless, it makes for compelling TV.
While I have my quibbles, I think on the whole Chicagoland is an enjoyable watch that will end up being good for the city and the mayor. Just don’t go in expecting journalism. This is first and foremost reality TV style drama. With that caveat in mind, I recommend watching it.
Takeaways From the Chicagoland
Watching Chicagoland made me think again two bigger picture issues.
First, in watching gangs take revenge on each other in an endless cycle of retaliation that literally stretches on for years and in which no one can actually recall the original offense, I was reminded of Hannah Arendt writing on the role of forgiveness:
Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is a natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.
Forgiveness is not the only way to put a stop to a cycle of revenge. Arendt posits official punishment as another. But forgiveness is clearly the fastest and surest route. Until either the police are able to impose order and mete out genuine justice, or the grieving family and aggrieved gang compatriots of these murder victims are able to forgive and forswear vengeance, the cycle is unlikely to ever end.
I don’t want to judge too harshly teenagers in a ghetto living out the only life script they’ve ever known. But what’s our excuse? We too often live out in miniature the same process ourselves. How often do most of us forgive genuine wrong done against us, even of a much less consequential nature? Tune into the internet any day of the week and see untold amounts of shrieking over some offense or another, real or imagined. I suspect the vast majority of us would be behave no differently from those gangbangers in similar circumstances. We are blessed not to be there, however. But will we use that privileged position to end or perpetuate cycles of wrong in our own lives?
Secondly, Chicagoland made me think about the bigger picture of leadership in our cities and the major problems they face. I voted for Rahm as mayor, for three reasons. 1) I saw him as like his mentor Bill Clinton, namely someone to whom getting elected and staying in power is more important than pushing any ideological agenda. In short, I saw him as a pragmatist, not an ideologue with a policy ax to grind like Bill de Blasio. 2) Rahm spent a lot of time outside of Chicago. He’s got a global perspective and a global network that’s critical in this era. He’s also got the gravitas to interact at the highest levels of power in America, which is something few mayors can say. 3) Rahm has no natural constituency in Chicago. So if he wants to be re-elected, he needs to perform. He clearly has future political ambitions, and flaming out as mayor wouldn’t be helpful in pursuing them.
Looking back, while I’ve criticized Rahm for an excessive focus on the elite, I believe my judgment then was correct and on the whole I think he’s done a decent job in a very difficult situation. Apropos of point #3, if Chicago thinks differently, the popular and competent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is waiting in the wings. Whatever you think of his neoliberal policies, it’s clear Rahm is an actual leader, one with a ton of intelligence, drive, power, and the will to get things done.
Yet watching Chicagoland, it’s evident that even leadership ability of Rahm’s caliber struggles mightily with the city’s huge challenges. Chicago has a massive fiscal hole, and a very serious problem with a two tier society that has left vast tracts of the city behind. It’s by no means certain that Rahm will be able to make Chicago soar in the way that Daley did in the 90s, or even get re-elected if a there’s any stumble and a credible candidate like Preckwinkle gets into the race.
When I think about the difficulties in solving the problems in Chicago, which has not only Rahm’s leadership but a massively successful global city economy in the Loop and hundreds of thousands of well-heeled residents, it makes me pause. If Chicago struggles with its problems, how much more so other cities facing similar or worse problems but with much weaker leadership and no global city money and firepower? It really makes me wonder if a lot of places are simply going to die a slow death barring some lucky break from a change in the marketplace.
This ultimately is what I’d challenge the residents of other cities to think about when watching this show. Look at Chicago and what it is dealing with. Think about your own problems and your resources for combating them vis-a-vis Chicago. If that doesn’t make you sober up, I’m not sure what will.
Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
[ It's frequently alleged that Wal-Mart is a destroyer of small towns. Today Eric McAfee of American Dirt takes a look at Wal-Mart's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas to see what its effect has been there - Aaron.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.
But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?
If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.
My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.
My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?
Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.
The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.
The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?
Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.
It looks terrific.Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.
The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:
Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.
These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?
The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.
Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.
So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.
However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.
So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original
street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.
Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.
The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.
If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)
The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.
The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.
By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.
Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it
their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.
The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight,
no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers
to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.
This post originally appeared in American Dirt on October 16, 2013.
Sunday, February 2nd, 2014
This post originally ran on August 15, 2010. Some anachronisms have been left in the piece, so keep the original date in mine.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of Columbus, Ohio, one of those under the radar cities that’s a whole lot better than its external brand image would suggest.
That frustrates local civic leaders, who’ve undertaken a major re-branding effort, as discussed in a recent NYT piece, “There May Be ‘No Better Place,’ but There Is a Better Slogan:”
Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? Still waiting…. And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve. This capital city in the middle of a state better known, fairly or not, for cornfields and rusting factories has a low cost of living, easy traffic and a comparatively robust economy….What Columbus does not have, to the despair of its leaders, is an image. As home to major research centers, it has long outgrown its 1960s self-concept as a cow town, and its distinction as the birthplace of the Wendy’s hamburger chain does not quite do the trick these days. The city lacks a shorthand way to sell itself — a signature like the Big Apple or an intriguing tagline like Austin’s “Live Music Capital of the World.” As a result, those working to attract new companies, top professors, conventions and tourists have a hard time explaining how Columbus differs from dozens of other cities that likewise claim to be livable, progressive and fun.
As I’ve said many times, branding isn’t marketing. It isn’t about tag lines, messaging, or talking points. Yes, there’s an element of that and getting your message out. But branding starts with what’s on the inside not messages to the outside. It’s about who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you aspire to be when you grow up. The marketing part just helps communicate that.
I won’t reprise my general prescription on branding, but here are a few pieces you can review if interested:
Despite what the title of the NYT piece might suggest, I think Columbus gets it on this:
How do you stoke the imagination of outsiders and the enthusiasm of residents? Columbus, starting from relative obscurity, has found that you cannot just hire an advertising agency, like New York and Las Vegas did, and come up with a slogan. It needs to find something real and heartfelt to trumpet, a task force of business, educational, political and arts leaders here concluded.
Your brand has to be something that is authentic, that’s true to the place. It has to resonate with the people who are there. That’s not to say it can’t be aspirational. That’s how we grow. But to simply chuck your past and trying to be something completely different is overwhelmingly difficult and often fails. So kudos to Columbus for trying to find something true to the character of their city.
Apparently they’ve been at this a while, and one of the techniques has been involving residents in helping to define the new brand: “But this time, three years into their inner journey, city leaders expect to succeed by drawing the whole population into the process and teasing out shared points of pride.”
When I read something like “drawing the whole population into the process”, alarm bells go off. It’s not PC to say this, but too much public involvement at the wrong stage is a bad idea. Clearly, it’s important that the public buy in and that the results be shared and genuine input solicited without delivering a fait accompli. But design by focus group almost never works. I’ve seen a lot of civic visioning efforts that tried to be maximally inclusive – I even served on the steering committee for one – but I’ve yet to see one that produced compelling results or moved the needle. Think about it. Did Steve Jobs design the iPod by asking people what they thought about music players? No he did not. Apple, and all the best product companies, succeed by giving us the thing we didn’t even know we wanted until they gave it to us.
That’s not to say you ignore market research. There’s certainly an element of archeology and anthropology here. And it certainly has to go beyond simply hiring a fancy pants advertising firm, something Columbus wisely avoided. But community involvement isn’t probably going to get it either. Partially that’s because people who are too close, who are on the inside, probably have difficulty articulating the uniqueness of a place. I don’t have enough personal experience with Columbus to go into depth there. I’d have to get more deeply embedded in the community to really understand the place at a deeper level. But I’m confident that the qualities they are looking for are there to be discovered in Columbus. The city is doing well in a tough region. There have to be reasons why. It’s going to require digging deep though.
The Fallacy of Awareness
I gather from the NYT piece that the people in Columbus think they’ve got a pretty great city, and that if they could only get other people to see how great it is, their standing in the league tables of public estimation would go way up. I believe the first part is true, but not the second.
Wanting to have your city taken seriously is likely wanting to be a member of the cool kids club. How do you get in? Well, it goes without saying that you need to have the qualifications – to be good looking, rich, to suck up to the right people, etc – but is that enough? Sometimes yes, but more often not, particularly for people who don’t score overwhelmingly high.
Think about it, the defining characteristic of a clique is exclusivity. If it was too easy to get in, membership would lose its value. So if you think about cities, the urbanists, media types, academics, activists, etc. who are the arbiters to the public at large about what cities are the coolest and best generally all pick the same ones – cliques also enforce conformity of mindset – and it just so happen that those are the places that contain most of the said taste arbiters. Why would any of them choose to champion Columbus, unless they had some personal connection there?
People who are members of an elite clique generally spend most of the time talking with and about each other, and little time about anyone else, even to put them down. To be ignored is the ultimate penalty of being an outsider. This is true of almost any field.
Here’s a classic example from the blogosphere. There was a minor kerfuffle a while back about Andrew Sullivan using “ghost bloggers.” Fellow Tier One blogger Ann Althouse took extreme umbrage at this in a way I find very revealing about the mindset of members of an exclusive clique:
I seriously believed I was interacting with Sullivan, a writer I have respected for maybe 20 years. I wouldn’t have bothered with Patrick (or Chris). I really don’t care what they think. If they insult me, they are to me like any number of bloggers who insult me and whose bait I don’t take. I would always take Sullivan’s bait, because Sullivan is important. Not to know whether it’s Sullivan or one of them makes a mush out of the whole blog.
Of course when she says Andrew Sullivan is important, what’s she’s really implying that she’s important, and can’t be bothered wasting her time on anyone who isn’t also on the VIP list. To have fooled her into debating mere peons – whose writing she admits she can’t tell from Sullivan’s himself – is treachery of the highest order.
In fairness to Althouse, she does link to lesser known bloggers (including, once, me). The point is not that she’s evil, which I don’t think, but that this is how the world really works.
If you are the Columbus, Ohio of bloggers, how do you get Ann Althouse, Andrew Sullivan, etc. to care about you? I can actually share a personal story in that regard. The first two and a half years of this blog was almost exclusively about Indianapolis, and I had very wide readership there. But I received very little recognition or acknowledgment in that city. Quite the opposite in fact. As an example, one journalist I assisted with a story told me flat out I wasn’t authoritative enough to quote in the piece. While I hope I’m getting better over time, I don’t think my content was that much less compelling then than it is today. And it was obviously being read. So why the difference? It’s the same dynamic I’m talking about. They might not have known who I was, but they knew who I wasn’t – and that was one of the boys. Quality product and awareness had nothing to do with it. Having experienced that end of the spectrum is one reason I try to be a champion for new voices.
There’s an industry out there that creates the myth or fantasy of the instant or overnight success who achieves fame and glory when their talent is finally seen by the public or the right people. Susan Boyle for example. I’m sure that does happen from time to time. But is that the way it ordinarily happens? And how much staying power does fame and recognition have in those circumstances?
I’d suggest that this sort of thing happens far less than we are generally led to believe. I read a lot of magazine profiles of people and when I hear them talk about how they got their big break, I’m always amazed at how often there are one of two basic tales. The first is, “I was sitting in my office one day wondering how we were going to pay the rent when my phone rang and it was Frank Gehry asking if I could design some lighting fixtures for his new Guggenheim Museum”. The second is, “I just showed up at Vogue and lied that I was sent there by Steven Meisel and they interviewed me and I got the job.” How likely is it that most of these stories are true? Or at least that they are the whole truth?
One of my guilty pleasures is the New York Observer. One of the things I love about it is, that due to the gossipy nature of the publication, they always give you the back story on who the people they are talking about are. That 27 year old chief curator at the top tier museum? Yeah, his mom was an heiress. He wouldn’t advertise that fact in most of those other magazine profiles. I’d bet most of these stories would fare similarly under scrutiny, though perhaps in different ways.
Clearly, awareness, and awareness by the right people, is critical. You really do have to get out there and knock on Vogue’s door – probably getting it slammed in your face the first few times you do it. Everybody needs lucky breaks. I have no doubt that if my personal promotional skills were better, I’d be further along in achieving my own ambitions.
But there’s a lot more too it than that. You want to be a member of the club? You’ve got to break the door down yourself. You’ve got to make it so that they can’t ignore you. If Columbus wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to force itself into the conversation. That takes relentless hard work and creating a product so compelling that the urbanist elite has to respond to it and take it seriously. Simply being a great place to raise a family, having a relatively good economy, high quality of life and low costs – a value proposition virtually identical to lots of other cities regardless of what locals might think – is not going to get the job done.
One Columbus official said, “Candidly, we believe we are one of the brightest stars in Ohio’s future.” One of the brightest stars in Ohio? I’m sorry, that’s not going to cut it. It’s like I tell the people in Indy when they get excited about being the “Diamond of the Rust Belt”: that sounds an awful lot like bragging that you won the loser’s bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. There’s nothing wrong with being in Ohio – and Columbus would be ill-advised to try to pretend they are something different from the state. Columbusites can be proud of Ohio and their role in it. But if they want America to pay attention to them, they need a message and reality to match that ambition.
That’s what Portland did. Portland didn’t get to be Portland through superior marketing and talking points about having the lowest costs and quality of life on the west coast with all those natural amenities to boot. They went out and did nothing less than define a new vision of what a small city in America could be. And they delivered on it through relentless hard work and actual execution over the course of decades.
Staking Your Claim
If Columbus wants to raise its profile, then it has to start setting the agenda. That’s not to say they have to try to be the next Portland or anything. But they’ve got to find areas where they can stake their claim and create something that compels the world to pay attention.
I’ll be the first to admit that this section will be unfair to Columbus. I’m going to compare it to its “twin city” of Indianapolis, a place I know far better. So keeping in mind that I just probably know more about what’s going on in Indy, and that I’m clearly a partisan of that city, I’d like to note a few things.
First, Columbus just seems more with it than Indy on a host of matters. In fact, when it comes to things like urban design, density, public transit, and many other matters, Indy is almost worst in class. It’s hard for me to even name one urban infill project that exhibits proper urban design, for example, while in others cities I tend to note that the majority of new developments do. Columbus, by contrast, just seems to get it on most issues, from urbanism, to pedestrian investments, etc. Yet why is Indy much better known?
One reason is that while Columbus does a very good job of ticking all the boxes, I can’t name many areas where it has gone above and beyond the checklist. And therein lies its problem. Columbus is a quality follower and implementer of the right things, but isn’t an urban innovator or a place that has carved out a distinct and compelling offering versus broadly similar peers.
A lot of people from bigger cities don’t care for Indy much. If you want walkable neighborhoods, tons of independent restaurants, etc. it is not your place. But time and again Indy has gone out and pulled things off that many other cities can only dream about, and put themselves in the spotlight.
The NYT notes of Columbus leaders, “One model they have studied is Indianapolis, which raised its profile by describing itself as the amateur athletic capital of America.” The NYT gets it completely wrong. Indy didn’t raise its profile by describing itself as anything. Back in the 1970′s a group of glum city leaders sat around a table wondering what they were going to do about a city best known, if as anything, as “India-no-place.” They hit on the idea of amateur sports. But rather than a marketing program, they instead committed themselves to going out and making it a reality, a process that continues to this day, though not limited to only amateur sports.
Indy built a downtown arena in the 1970′s. They built a domed stadium at the bargain price of only $80 million in 1983 without a team to play in it in an era before widespread pro sports franchise relocations. This let them pick the Colts up in 1984 on the cheap. Yes, that was a lucky break, but one they were ready to exploit. They put the domed stadium next to the convention center, not just to help conventions, but anticipating that major sports events would have ancillary activities that would use the co-located space. They created the first of its kind Indiana Sports Corp. to oversee all aspects of luring and hosting events. They saw the benefits of industry clustering, and recruited sporting sanctioning bodies to town, culminating with the NCAA headquarters. They started off with unglamorous events like the trials for the 1984 Olympics. They took risky bets when opportunity presented itself such as jumping in to host the 1986 Pan Am Games when the original host city backed out. They built state of the art facilities for sports few people gave much though to like swimming and bicycling.
In effect, Indianapolis created the entire industry of using sports events hosting as an economic development platform, and they did it in a holistic, extremely intelligent way that involved putting some major chips on the table for projects with an uncertain outcome. And they are still at it today, 35 years later after, as all successes do, everybody and their brother has tried to get a piece of this pie. The competition is brutal, and Indy has spent big – some say too big – to stay at the front, such as by going full out to host a Super Bowl in 2012. Indianapolis is arguably still the best place in America to host a sporting event.
I’m a believer in all the research that suggests sports investment is a bad idea with a dubious payoff for cities. But Indianapolis is an exception. There’s no doubt this was a major force in transforming the city – and getting its name out there. How much would the city have had to pay for all the de facto advertising impressions they’ve gotten from all this sports investment?
Is Columbus willing to stake a similar claim in another speculative area and put big money behind it, staying with it over the course of decades? Is Columbus ready to pile $3 billion in chips on Red 14 the way Indy did?
Indy also conceived many other similar types of programs that not only add to local quality of life, but also get the city’s name out. Consider the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, one of the most prestigious such competitions in the world. Why would anyone take seriously a fine arts competition in Indianapolis? Well, they wouldn’t, all things being equal. So when the city did it, they had to come up with an unbeatable package. First, they partnered with the world-renowned Indiana University School of Music to give them musical credibility. And they set up for the winner a year’s loan of a Stradivarius violin, a recital at Carnegie Hall and other places, intense coaching from some of the world’s best violinists, and more. That certainly got people’s attention.
Or consider the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation. Again, why would anyone think of Indianapolis in this field? They wouldn’t – except that they city anted up and made it the single biggest cash prize in this field in the world and recruited a top international nominating committee and jury.
Or look at the currently in progress Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is taking over 8 miles of downtown street lanes away from cars and giving them to people. It is a unique project, that includes the highest quality bicycle boulevard I’ve seen, along with an often separate pedestrian walkway, significant green features, and major public art installations. While honestly this has not received the publicity it deserves, it has been covered in Surface, Dwell, Streetsblog, and elsewhere. It’s a totally unique project. From now on anyone who wants to undertake a major downtown urban trail project is going to go to Indianapolis to see what it did. Why? Not because they want to, but because they have to. Because at some point somebody is going to ask the question, did you look at the Indy Cultural Trail? – and if they development team says No, they are going to look pretty stupid.
I’ve also noted how suburban Carmel, Indiana is staking out a claim to be a nationally premier suburb, with 5% of all the modern roundabouts in the United States, the largest deployment of roundabout interchanges in the United States, an ambitious agenda of New Urbanist retrofit, a $150M concert hall, and much more.
You might not know any or all of these, but in their fields, they are known. They are all projects of major ambitions, that attempt to innovate and set the agenda, and which serve a branding function for the city. They were also conceived with a recognition that nobody is going to pay attention to Indianapolis unless the city forces them to. And it has. And it’s not just in the traditional civic sphere. Here’s a point to ponder: with Columbus’ vaunted gay community, why is it Indianapolis that is home to the Bilerico Project, the Huffington Post of the LGBT community?
I could go on and on – best airport in the United States, anyone? – but I think you get the point. Indy isn’t in the club yet, and may never get there – but it has come a long way.
Again, if I knew Columbus better, I’d probably be able to give examples there too. I’m sure Columbus isn’t totally without these types of programs. But my blog has been traditionally Midwest focused. And I’ve tried to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in all these cities, including Columbus. I read the Dispatch online for over two years and still read Columbus Underground regularly. But I haven’t come across that many truly compelling stories of national relevance – and certainly nowhere near as many as I’d expect for a city that’s rocking and rolling as much as Columbus is.
Maybe the painful truth is that Columbus today just isn’t very different from the other places with which it competes – and that’s what this re-branding should really address.
Columbus has most of the blocking and tackling nailed. It’s a city that gets it. But to break through at the national level, Columbus is going to have to do a lot more than get it. Columbus is going to have to start playing offense, start dictating an ambitious – and let’s face it, risky – agenda around items that are so compelling the world won’t have any choice but to sit up and pay attention. Because it’s unlikely anybody is going to start giving Columbus the props it craves otherwise. It’s just like they told me at my old firm about the secret to making partner – you’ve got to already more than be there.
Thursday, January 23rd, 2014
My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions.” In it I contrast San Francisco and Houston as representative champions of two different models of both urban development, and future vision for the US economy. But while San Francisco has risen to the challenge, Houston has largely not because it has failed to tell its story to the world. That’s in part because it feels no need to self-promote and especially focus on getting its narrative out via the media.
Here’s an excerpt:
The second big divergence relates to media. After all, the media, understood broadly, is how we come to have knowledge about or opinions of many things. Simply put, San Francisco and the tech industry get the power of media, while Houston doesn’t.
The content creators may still prefer a New York, LA, or DC but the tech moguls are circling the last redoubts of entertainment and information. Apple now has a dominant position in content distribution for music and is expanding in other areas. Google generates huge advertising revenues that are greater than the entire newspaper and magazine industry. Despite its many troubles, Yahoo remains one of the most-visited news sites. Meanwhile in just last year or two, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has bought the venerable New Republic while Seattle’s Jeff Bezos recently bought the Washington Post. Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay, recently announced a $250 million new media venture featuring Glenn Greenwald.
Houston, by contrast, has close to zero media influence or impact and seems not to care. It’s much less an influencer of media than one whose reputation has been shaped by it, and often not in a good way. Though there are many sprawl dominated metropolises in America, it’s Houston that has become the bête noire of urbanists.
One commenter highlights a point I wish I’d made. Gary B contrasts Houston with Atlanta, where Ted Turner built a media empire. Here’s what he had to say:
To my mind, the more interesting straight-up comparison is Houston to Atlanta. They are both new cities, roughly comparable in size (in the 5-6+ million range) and growing at roughly the same rate; they share much the same Southern background and climate (though Houston is more diverse, drawing immigrants from a much greater portion of the world) and political orientation (thoroughly conservative leadership class, but emerging liberal demographics beneath, at least in the central cities). So why has most national press about Atlanta over recent decades been glowingly positive while those about Houston have been mostly negative? A great deal of it has to do with media presence. Atlanta has had Ted Turner’s media empire, and to a great extent has broadcast its own version of its story nationwide; Houston has left its image to be determined by often envious media empires located thousands of miles away.
Friday, January 10th, 2014
A three installment start at a potential Discovery Channel “reality” program called Salvage City has created a minor kerfuffle in some local quarters. I haven’t seen the show, but it appears to feature a group of the Beautiful and the Bearded who break into buildings, ostensibly illegally, on architectural salvage missions one step ahead of the wrecking ball, all for fun and profit. Here’s the trailer. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
Not everybody is happy with the “Rust Belt boneyard” take on the city. Michael Allen at Next City says this is an example of the Rust Belt frontier myth:
The term “Rust Belt” itself exaggerates the physical decay and isolates the identity of many cities in static matter. Advocates, journalists and scholars have popularized the term, often endearingly, while perpetuating the emphasis on what makes these places frontiers of decline. Narratives of the Rust Belt are still focused on loss, rife with a cynical nostalgia and a nagging refusal to cast in with wealthier and less damaged cities. The singularity of the conditions of places like St. Louis and Detroit remains mythic fodder for would-be heroes of public policy, architectural design and public art. There are many Daniel Boones of the legacy cities.
Allen, however, isn’t writing just to cast stones at the show. Chris Haxel at the Riverfront Times is more emphatic, saying St. Louis deserves better:
Where the producers really stumble is their characterization of St. Louis as a foe on the level of alligators or hurricanes. Salvage City is rife with images of decay or ruin porn, a style that fails to tiptoe the line between appreciation and exploitation. The salvage scenes are ostensibly about rescuing doomed valuables, but in reality glorify theft, plunder and trespassing.
What he and the show’s producers have done — exploit the city in exchange for personal gain — is the definition of selling out. Not the artistic selling out that is inevitable when a band or artist enjoys mainstream success, but the kind that constitutes betrayal….Here they are on national television, selling the city as an “urban wasteland…ripe for plunder.” Ultimately, Salvage City disappoints because St. Louis deserves better.
I post this because I always find it interesting to see the reactions people have when their city is supposedly mischaracterized for the worst in contrast to the crickets when locals use whitewash and marketroid materials to promote their city to the world. Want to see a real myth? Check out “Here Is St. Louis” (if the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
There’s nothing per se wrong with this. It’s a classic city video that portrays St. Louis as an amalgam of family friendly fun and Portland-style hipness, with a dollop of local flavor a multi-culti thrown in. But is it a full and inclusive portrayal of the reality of St. Louis? I don’t think so. In effect, videos like this are the flip side of Salvage City, but few people ever think to critique them.
I don’t want to suggest too much collective outrage, however. The response to Salvage City is a bit muted from what I can tell. And Alderman Olgilvie strikes a better tone in telling folks to take a chill pill:
Our mini freak-out over Salvage City comes on the heels of several media panic attacks in 2013. Other examples include reactions to a New York Times look at crime and murder in St. Louis, and a humorous Art Forum takedown of an overwrought guided bus tour of St. Louis art venues that culminated with a violet-hour visit to SLAM’s expansion grand opening. The story, and the predictable freak-out. (See RFT‘s “Snobby New York Art Critic Scowls on St. Louis.”) Writers snapped our photo when the light wasn’t flattering, and we didn’t like it one bit.
What it boils down to is a little hypersensitivity about how St. Louis is portrayed in national media, positive or negative. It is this nagging worry that folks on one coast or the other will write us off the same way one of Kendzior’s article headlines refers to us, as flyover country.
Perhaps our New Year’s resolution should be a little bit thicker skin, and a renewed confidence in telling, and hearing, all the stories about our city: good, bad and indifferent. Rather than make one story carry the burden of representing all the facets of our city, let a thousand voices rise in song or storytelling, each with its own particular perspective.
The challenge for St. Louis and other such place is to develop a maturing sense of confidence about who they are. One that accepts the vicissitudes of the media, isn’t afraid to acknowledge legitimate faults, isn’t dependent on the approval of others for a sense of self-worth, and is willing to go its own way into the future.
Tuesday, November 5th, 2013
[ Since I frequently post time lapse videos here, I wanted to provide a more critical take on them. I came across this interesting post by Oli Mould on the topic over the summer and he was gracious enough to let me repost it. I do wonder though if whether the increasing commoditization and ubiquity of the time lapse that he notes simply means this trend is already well past its sell-by date - Aaron. ]
It seems a day does not pass without a new professional time lapse film of a city landing in my Google Rea…, Feedly or twitter stream. They all seem to follow a similar pattern; they’re shot at night and from an elevated position perhaps with a slow pan; they contain a collection of shooting angles that span highways, bridges or capture the throng of a pedestrian-heavy zone; some will have the seemingly ubiquitous (and simply annoying) tilt-shift effect (which seems to make everything look miniature) perhaps added to increase the visual metaphor of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the city engendered by such films (a good list of the best ones can be found here). Some of my particular favourites are from Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Quito and this rather Miévillian offering of New York. Time lapse films represent the vibrancy, complexity and gleaming aesthetics of urban life, or at least a particular kind of urban life. For me though, the increasing proliferation and professionalisation of these films is an interesting trend because it could be seen to represent a number of cross-cutting contexts and themes that have been debated in contemporary urban geography discourse of late, but also, the time lapse video could be viewed as part of urban entrepreneurial strategy.
The first and perhaps most obvious theme is the lowering of the barriers to entry to such an endeavour. Cameras, editing software and dissemination channels are becoming ever more accessible, which makes the only real barrier to achieving a well-crafted film is access to the best vantage points within the city and the desire to do so. The fact that even I have produced some, such as one of Chicago, should be testament enough that even the most amateur of filmmakers can start to produce and disseminate time lapse films (albeit in my case, very poorly). That said, many of the films (particularly those in the links above) have been shot by professional photography and filmmaking companies and individuals, as such time lapse photography is becoming an industry subset in it’s own right. This dichotomous process of the uptake by amateurs of creative visual practices (armed with only a £200 camera and a filter-adding software package) against the proliferation of a professionalised workforce has its own set of problems, not least the increasing precariousness of work, but that debate, as they say, is for another time. Suffice to say, it is no doubt getting easier (from a technological perspective) to create and publish content like this, but also an industry around the practice is manifesting.
The second and perhaps more interesting context which can be teased from the proliferation of time lapse videos is the ‘mobility’ turn in Human Geography. The interest in (im)mobility has burgeoned recently, with a number of key articles, books and even a new journal. John Urry, who pioneered the field of mobility, built upon an argument forwarded by Putnam, and suggests that a ‘good’ (utopian?) society effectively ascribes the right to co-presence to everyone, i.e. limitless mobility to all. This of course is unachievable, and indeed undesirable for current processes of entrepreneurial urbanisation. Cresswell (2010: 17) argues that there are six constituent parts to the concept of mobility; “motive force, velocity, rhythm, route, experience, and friction”, only some of which seem to be articulated by time lapse videos. The constant fluidity and ‘smooth’ space depicted by these films negates the frictions of mobility and perhaps more tellingly, obscures the immobility that is part of the urban condition. Thinking of urban immobility though is not conducive, and indeed counter-productive to the wider lexicon of ‘flows of capital, people, ideas’ and so on – all those themes which have became the common parlance of urban entrepreneurial strategy. Which leads on to the third and (for me) most relevant theme….
…of the Creative City paradigm. The rise of creativity as an urban policy tool, as we should all know by now, is the go-to agenda for cities looking to get ahead in the global urban rat race. Bullied into global competitiveness by the endless ‘city league tables’ that are produced by economist units, public relations firms or real estate agents, cities have taken to acting like companies and spending more on building a competitive ‘brand’. The relentless search for uniqueness and the next ‘cool’ urban imaginary is very much entrenched in urban entrepreneurial strategy. Couple that with the pervasiveness of social media that is becoming inextricable from such strategies, then we find ourselves in a situation where time lapse videos that depict cities as mobile, vibrant, unconstricted and dynamic will be very favourable to city PR departments, and as such, are beginning to commission the films themselves, as was the case in Shanghai recently. “City logos and brands have become ineffective” it seems, and so time lapse films are taking their place.
Therefore, city time lapse films are highly relevant and desired vehicles for urban competitiveness as they visually articulate urban fluidity that is representative of (and indeed a pre-requisite for) mobile capital, while at the same time (re)producing a particular urban aesthetic of ‘cool’, that is much needed to attract the people and workers that are the conduits for the capture of said mobile capital. How long will it be before the time lapse film becomes part of the Creative City package that is sold by doorstep salesmen to the next city wanting a slice of the ‘creative’ action? Is it already the case?
This post originally appeared in taCity on July 8, 2013.
Thursday, September 5th, 2013
I’m going to be traveling for a while and since I didn’t take a summer vacation, plan to take a break from the blog for the next week and a half to two weeks. To keep you occupied while I’m gone, here’s another installment in my roundups of the coolest and best city videos I’ve featured here. In case you missed the previous ones, check out the first installment and the second one.
Time Lapse Philadelphia
A cool video from Angelo Leotta with a nice soundtrack. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
An amazing look at the Windy City. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Singapore: The Lion City
If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Not the work I would use to describe Zurich based on its reputation, but a cool video nevertheless. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
This Is Shanghai
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Sunday, August 18th, 2013
Among post-industrial cities in America, one of the things I observe is a sort of malaise in the civic character. Many of these places have been beaten down so hard for so long that a sort of defeatist attitude has set in. This can include bitterness about what was lost, a self-loathing mindset, and cynicism and negativity about any proposed efforts to improve things.
Our Backyard Rhode Island
This negativity has inspired efforts in some places to first change local perceptions about their community before trying to market to the world. One such initiative was recently unveiled by the Rhode Island Foundation and is called “It’s All in Our Backyard.” This effort grew out of a civic brainstorming event from last fall called “Make It Happen Rhode Island.” While the name makes it sound like an internally focused tourism campaign, the idea to sell residents on the positive side of their community in order to provide an uplift to the civic spirit.
I was apprehensive about this when I heard about it, as most place-based marketing campaigns out of officialdom anywhere are dreadful, tending towards the generic and the earnest, and are often actually counter-productive. So I was glad to see that It’s All In Our Backyard is actually pretty good.
Here’s an example of one of the videos, which is a company feature of textile business Hope Global, based in Cumberland (if the video doesn’t display for you click here):
This example works on a variety of levels. It’s a historic business in the textile manufacturing business that has been core to the state’s economic identity. There are nice shots of a historic building and a WPA-style mural along with modern machinery, a female CEO, and discussions of globalization that show a piece of authentic Rhode Island’s character successfully repositioned for the 21st century.
I might have suggested some tweaks. It’s not exactly clear what this company actually does, though the one example was given pretty compelling. (Hope Global is adding workers while exporting shoe laces to China for premium branded products in what appears to be an example of re-shoring). But my lack of familiarity with the company doesn’t diminish the quality of the piece, which comes across as solid and convincing in contrast with so many place marketing videos that can easily be picked apart like a bad action movie plot.
At the more grass roots level, Andy Cutler and some associates have been trying to put out a positive word as well, but aimed at external as well as internal audiences. He laid out a vision in an op-ed piece on GoLocalProv. He also convened a small gathering of folks to brainstorm what’s great about Providence. This resulted in two online efforts branded “OurPVD.” One is a Twitter account @OurPVD (and #OurPVD), which is designed to get out the word on cool things in Providence. Similarly, there’s a Pinterest page that is pretty good. Cutler is also trying out a bit of “citizen diplomacy” with an effort called “Smaller Cities Unite!” that led to a trip to Copenhagen and at least one mention of Providence in Copenhagenize, arguably the world’s most influential urban bicycling blog.
Rockford, Illinois: Our City, Our Story
An interesting initiative out of Rockford, IL called “Our City Our Story” is another example. This one is a sort of intermediate level initiative between the two Rhode Island ones. Filmmaker Pablo Korona was tired of Rockford taking a beating, such as in a major New York Times feature called “Portraits From a Job-Starved City.” He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video community storytelling project to give a different perspective on the city. While still an outsider effort that local officialdom seems not yet to have fully embraced, in a sense it has “gone legit” and gained quite a bit of traction as well as national press. (See, for example “How a Branding Vigilante Is Saving His Town With a Rogue Website” in Fast Company).
There are 16 videos so far, each featuring some interesting character from Rockford. These range from a tailor who in a previous life was a singer, songwriter and owner of a record label that took a pass on signing the Jackson 5 to a kid jailed for tagging become a legitimate street artists lauded by the very mayor who bragged of having him arrested.
Here’s one that is similar to the Hope Global story above. Called “Our Curiosity”, it’s a look at a local machine shop that cut all the gears on the Mars rover Curiosity. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
Again here the “our” motif reveals the inward focus of the piece.
Thanks for Carl Wohlt for pointing me at this.
When a new CEO takes over a company that has struggled, one of the things he has to do is rebuild corporate morale. These various efforts show examples of how local people are trying to initiate an improvement in their region’s civic morale and break the cycle of self-loathing, a very important task.
As a post-script, I’ll highlight one more Rhode Island video. The typical “What’s so great about your community?” video is terrible. Again, usually it is either generic items most communities would likewise brag about, or comes across as exaggerated. This one, which appears to be mostly sort of outtakes from the various other videos produced, shows how a small community can pull this off. This is because the producer and the people in it have some fun with the state. For example, the guy who in reference to the small size of the state says, “Well, I feel like the size one is one everybody’s going to talk about. What are other people saying?” Or the guy who says, “First of all, my wife’s from Rhode Island, and I absolutely love her.” . (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
When you’re small, you can’t take yourself too seriously or you’ll look like you’re trying to hard. Not being afraid to have some fun with yourself is a great way to disarm that. Not bad for what appears to be an “extra” production, though the claim of diversity is a bit of a head-scratcher.
This post originally appeared in GoLocalProv on August 12, 2013.
Sunday, July 28th, 2013
As I’ve noted before, Detroit is all too frequently just a blank screen onto which people project their own personal bogeymen. So liberals see in Detroit racism gone wild, America’s comeuppance for its love affair with the automobile, and corporate greed. Conservatives see the ultimate end result of unions and where liberalism will take the US as a whole if it isn’t stopped.
There’s a bit of truth in all of these. The left would have us believe that having Democrats in charge of the city for so long had nothing to do with where it is today. But they reality is, they’ve got to own their piece of blame. Detroit certainly hasn’t been a bastion of conservative policy, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, Republicans should be aware that Detroit’s decline has been ongoing for quite a while, and there were definitely some mayors with R’s by their name who were in on the game. And economic forces shaped Detroit far more than they’d like to admit.
But ultimately what we see today is the left furiously spinning about Detroit (for example, see the book “Detroit: A Biography”) and the right trying to use it as a poster child for everything they hate. Yet on the right I can’t help but observe a particularly mean streak in the commentary, one that’s positively gleeful about Detroit’s demise. It’s as if, not content with letting the results speak for themselves about what happened under Democratic rule, the right seems determined to humiliate Detroit, reveling in its pain. It’s schadenfreude on steroids.
Let me highlight this. First Kurt Schlichter says that “Conservatives Should Point and Laugh As Detroit Dies.”
The agonizing death of Detroit is cause for celebration. It’s the first of the liberal-run big cities and states to fall, and we should welcome its collapse with glee.
Yeah, liberals, eventually you do run out of other people’s money.
The blue state model is a terminal disease, and Detroit is its poster child. Only this is one telethon where we should pledge that we won’t pay a single dime to keep the progressive party going a single minute longer.
Detroit represents the epitome of the blue state, Democrat machine liberalism that Barack Obama represents. Well, not one damn cent for Barry’s Kids.
Don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel. John Fund at the National Review is nowhere near vicious, but he does paint a target on Detroit’s art, basically arguing that the city should be forced to sell off its assets to satisfy creditors:
What no one wants to do, apparently, is sell the city’s assets. The city has largely unused parks and waterfront property that could be opened to economic development. The Detroit Historical Museum has a collection of 62 vehicles, including an 1870 Phaeton carriage and John Dodge’s 1919 coupe, that is worth millions. But the biggest sacred cow is the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of the nation’s oldest and most valuable art museums. It has pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Rembrandt. The Institute also owns William Randolph Hearst’s armor collection and the original puppet from the children’s TV show Howdy Doody.
The Detroit Free Press asked New York and Michigan art dealers to evaluate just a few of the 60,000 items in the Institute’s collection. The experts said the 38 pieces they looked over would fetch a minimum of $2.5 billion on the market, with each of several pieces worth $100 million or more. That would go a long way toward relieving the city’s long-term debt burden of $17 billion.
Let me get this straight. Instead of Detroit being $17 billion in debt, let’s sell off everything left that makes Detroit viable and end up still $14.5 billion in debt and still bankrupt. (Though only a few items were evaluated, they were clearly the handful of most valuable ones. Howdy Doody ain’t Van Gogh). Oh, yeah, that will help – if your definition of help is bailing out banks who loaned money to a city everyone has known is a basket case for many, many years. If those banks expected the art to be sold, they should have made the city pledge it as collateral.
Fund is right that Detroit does need to make tough choices about assets. I’ve made that argument myself. But the goal should be to create at a minimum a sustainably functional government and ensure the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit doesn’t undermine the broader region and state. Selling off secondary assets (and yes, Howdy Doody may be a good candidate) is worth pursuing if there’s cost/benefit. But saying that Detroit should sell off its regional cultural crown jewels is little more than an attempt to inflict counter-productive penance, to force humiliation upon the city. And it would also be completely unlike say a corporate Chapter 11 restructuring, which is designed to produce a viable firm on the other end and thus the most valuable assets are often retained.
Of course, Detroit’s own residents make it easy to act this way. A group of protestors referred to the bankruptcy filing as a “declaration of war,” saying that outsiders aren’t entitled to any say or even get the money back they loaned the the city, saying instead “the banks owe us.”
Still, have some compassion. It’s understandable Detroit’s residents are in pain and lashing out. Clearly they have tough medicine they haven’t reconciled themselves to taking. But there are better ways to respond to it. Andrew Biggs at the American Enterprise Institute took a more moderate path, suggesting that while a plain reading of Michigan’s constitution suggests it wouldn’t protect pensions in bankruptcy, there’s still reason to give pensioners some preferential treatment (thought not being made 100% whole, saying:
Does this mean that retired city workers should take the same haircut as municipal bond holders? I really don’t think so. Anyone loaning money to the city of Detroit was knowingly taking the risk that the city might not repay; that’s why bonds issued by Detroit paid a higher yield than Treasury securities, which are assumed to be riskless. As with any risk investment, sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
City employees, on the other hand, exchanged services today — along with employee contributions to their pension plan — for benefits to be delivered in the future. Sure, employees should consider the financial stability of their employer in its ability to deliver what is promised, but city employees seem to be a qualitatively different group than municipal bond holders.
This seems more rational type analysis and isn’t rooted in mean-spiritedness.
Though eager to point out how Democratic policies and corrupt Democratic politicians helped propel Detroit headlong in bankruptcy (which is certainly a valid political claim to make), having a vengeful streak only shows Republicans behaving in a ways that’s as hard hearted as Democrats say they are.
Friday, June 21st, 2013
My latest post is online at GoLocalProv and is called “What Makes a Great Community?” This one goes beyond the Providence specific to take a look generally at what makes a great place to live. I discuss the debates over what metrics to look at, as well as the emotional and cultural appeal of place. Here’s an excerpt:
There appear to be two fundamentally different views of what makes a successful community, the “horizontal” model and the “vertical” model. The horizontal model focuses on quantitative metrics like population and job growth. The vertical model emphasizes qualitative ones like per capita income or GDP.
Unsurprisingly, cities tend to fall into one or the other of these categories. And the partisans of the different models tend to be very vocal about their “team.” Vertical success cities include Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Horizontal success cities include Dallas, Charlotte, and Nashville.
The people, culture, and lifestyle, things that are difficult to quantify and capture in ranking systems, are what distinguish most of New England. But exactly what it is about these can be frustratingly difficult to articulate. I have found this to be the case almost everywhere. For example, I am from the Midwest. Most of the Midwest has a rather plain vanilla reputation and most cities there find it almost impossible to describe themselves other than with platitudes like “a great place to raise a family” or “big city amenities without the price tag and hassles.” But go to say Ohio and visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and you will experience three radically different places. Yet is hard to really describe the uniqueness of each one. I know it when I experience it, but it’s hard to articulate.
I have found this similarly to be the case in much of New England. Where I live in Rhode Island, I hear people describe its best assets as the coast, the food, the fact that everything is close, and the historic architecture. The coast is very nice, I agree. But to be blunt I don’t find the other three items very compelling. They are nice things, but not overwhelming distinctives.
This is a difficult problem. Not because of anything unique to the community or New England, but because it’s a hard problem generally for places that are not used to being introspective. Lots of places struggle with it. Almost everyplace struggles with it to be honest. It requires digging deep into the local soil. It’s like going on an anthropology or archeology expedition.