Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
Here’s a test to see how many of you are actually serious about attracting creatives and building a creative economy in your city: will you actually watch this 53 minute documentary about Berlin that’s in German with subtitles?
“In the Belly of a Whale” is a great film that consists of talking head style ruminations on the art scene and life as a creative in Berlin. The people featured are “all in” as artists and fully part of that scene themselves (though as you’ll see most of them wear many hats). We get to see plenty of their often very cool art as well as hear some cool tunes.
Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base. Nobody has succeeded like Berlin.
First the video, then some additional commentary on what I saw in it. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
I have generally argued that talent migration is not a zero sum game. However, according to these folks Berlin really has hoovered up a good chunk of Germany’s artists. This makes it more difficult to be an artist today in second tier cities than it was in the past. How true this is I don’t know. The people here clearly take a “global elite” type view. They frequently refer to places like New York and London. They clearly recognize that Berlin is in the top echelon by reputation in the global art world and don’t hesitate to act like it (though they candidly recognize Berlin’s weaknesses).
How does this play out elsewhere? I do think there are certain industries that are extremely centralized. Art and fashion are two of those. There are only real commercial markets in a handful of places. So while secondary cities can perhaps attract more artists and creatives than they did in the past (just as they have more coffee shops than they did back in the 80s or 90s, for example), building a real economy out of this will be extremely difficult. While this might seem insulting, the art would in a smaller city is to some extent scenery or decoration, not the integral part of the city and its economy that it is in Berlin.
This is probably doubly true since even in Berlin there’s no money in art. None of these people really make much of a living from it, except one person who seems to exhibit internationally. They all admit people in Berlin want cool stuff, but don’t want to pay for it. You need international representation to get paid. But what Berlin lacks economically, it makes up for in dirt cheap rents, abandoned buildings without clear title (even today), and an unmatched richness of interaction with other creatives.
I do think it’s fair to say that while perhaps the artists haven’t profited much from their work, the city has. The art scene and the techno scene (which seem very inter-related) have put Berlin on the map and drive huge tourism dollars. So I’m guessing the economic impact is much higher than direct art spending. However, having a collection of artists unmatched anywhere in the world has certainly not succeed in turning Berlin into an economic dynamo, and the city remains “poor but sexy” as its mayor once said.
In any case, if “creativity” is on your city’s agenda, then this is a much watch video. Also must-watch is Real Scenes: Berlin that I previously posted. That one is a nice complement that covers the rise of the techno scene and the reasons behind that.
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013
This week I’m featuring a promotional video for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was part of a series of videos Atlantic Cities highlighted about the city. They say this is played at the stadium before every home game. I can see why. It’s a fantastic piece. The way that it captures gritty Pittsburgh while also throwing in slices of more traditional “cool urban” (like skyline shots) and lots of average, everyday people instead of the Beautiful or the Bearded Ones is great. The lessons of this videos should be absorbed by the tourism teams of most cities which as a rule continue to churn out work that actively makes me not want to visit those cities. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
I’d like to contrast the Pittsburgh with a video called “Here Is St. Louis.” I pick that one not because it’s bad, but because in many ways is actually very well done. It’s not a tourism video, but what I’d call an explicit “city video” of the type I often post here. This video does indeed show many only in St. Louis type landmarks, shots of people, etc. But where this video falls flat is that it tries too hard to make St. Louis look like a super-cool city. Coffee shops, microbreweries, cool restaurants, record stores, etc. It checks all the boxes. But substitute in your city’s equivalents for everything shot in the video, and you’d probably come away not really being able to tell the difference. This doesn’t tell a truly compelling story of St. Louis, though it’s certainly well done and conveys the city positively. I just think the Pirates did a much better job of capturing the unique spirit of their city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Chris LeBeau
Saturday, May 11th, 2013
[ Yesterday's article on casinos was inspired by a Richard Florida piece bashing a proposal for a new casino in Toronto. Since it was published in a Canadian web site, many American and global readers may not have seen it, so I'm grateful he gave me permission to repost it here - Aaron. ]
The debate over a casino in downtown Toronto is coming to a head. Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee of Toronto City Council voted 9-4 in favour of a downtown casino, putting the ultimate fate of the casino before a vote of the full City Council.
Ford said he was “optimistic” Toronto will ultimately get a downtown casino, according to the Globe and Mail. “Nine votes, I think that’s a good beginning.”
Fortunately, a majority or near majority of Toronto’s councillors are on record as being opposed to a downtown casino, according to recent reports.
If Council votes no, the mayor said he will take the issue directly to the voters. “It’s either no or yes. If it’s a yes, thank you very much, appreciate your support for creating 10,000 good-paying jobs,” Ford said on Monday. “And if it’s a no, then I guess that becomes an election issue.” But he backtracked on this on Tuesday, saying that: “It’s not an election issue. They are just going have to explain to the voters why they didn’t create 10,000 good-paying jobs. I want to deal with it this year. I’m optimistic. People are seeing the light.”
Ford and the nine committee members who voted yes are not the only ones people pushing for a downtown casino. Key elements of Toronto’s business leadership have either been active cheerleaders for it, quietly supportive, or eerily mum.
You have to ask yourself, why?
Toronto’s business leaders like to think that they are helping to build a great global city, but casino building is city-ruining of the highest order. Virtually every serious study that has ever been done of the economic impacts of casinos shows that their costs far exceed their benefits and that they are a poor use of precious downtown land. A downtown casino will tear holes in Toronto’s urban fabric, create more costs than benefits, and as surely as if it’s holding up a giant sign, will send the message that Toronto is on the wrong track. As the architecture critic Christopher Hume put it a while back: “Torontonians have made it clear they’re not interested.” He added, “the beauty of this city now is that it doesn’t need a casino, let alone want one. In fact the casino needs Toronto more than the city needs it.”
I had my chance to vent about casino gambling in Toronto in the Star last spring. “About one thing,” I wrote, “urbanists across the ideological spectrum are unanimous. And that is that building casinos, especially in an already thriving downtown, is a truly terrible idea.” My colleague Kevin Stolarick put it best: “Adding a casino to Toronto will not make it a ‘world-class’ city. It will make it second class.”
David Olive, the business columnist of the Toronto Star, recently wrote that in the “Toronto casino debate, it’s time to walk away from the table.” Citing a March study by my research team at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he writes that:
“The turning point in the interminable debate over a new casino resort in downtown Toronto will be, one hopes, the astonishing report released March 12 by the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) at the University of Toronto.
“The MPI found that a casino makes little — if any — sense for the GTA. And it implies that the slick lobbyists employed by casino advocates Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) and its private partners are betting on what they hope is widespread gullibility among Torontonians.
“The MPI report knocks the stuffing out of the casino advocates’ bloated claims of renewed economic vitality in a GTA that, in fact, is already thriving — a rare metropolis to boast the status of North America’s fastest-growing city twice in the past half century (currently and in the 1960s and 1970s).
“The Martin Prosperity Institute is an extension of the business school at U of T. As such, it is pro-business and has a vested interest, for the sake of attracting the best and brightest students worldwide, in the GTA’s economic stardom.
If a new downtown casino, as proposed, could help advance MPI’s interests, the think tank would be a cheerleader for it. Instead, in remarkably blunt language, the business and urban-economy experts at MPI conclude that the casino champions have simply generated a blizzard of numbers, ‘all of them meaningless’ and conveyed in a ‘remarkably skewed’ and ‘misleading manner.’”
The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed Toronto’s casino push, a “dead man’s hand,” pointing out: “Casinos aren’t for cities on their way up. They’re for cities out of options.”
Toronto is hardly unique in the push for casinos. Mega-casino moguls and developers like Sheldon Adelson and Malaysia’s Genting Group are proposing lavish billion-dollar casino complexes in cities across the globe. I called it “the casinoization of everywhere” in an oped in the New York Daily News — the latest manifestation of what the late Susan Strange aptly dubbed “casino capitalism.”
In the U.S. alone, gambling generates roughly $90-billion in annual revenues, a figure that is projected to expand to $115-billion by 2015. Faced with the prospect of laying off teachers, firemen, and policemen, it looks like manna to cash-starved cities and metros. But if there’s one truth we know about casinos, it’s that the house always wins. Casinos generate mega-profits for their developer-owners, who don’t have to deal with the myriads of problems they cause for the cities in which they are located.
Gamblers might fool themselves into thinking that they can get something for nothing, but cities and governments should know better. For all the ostensible billions in tax revenue, spillovers from increased tourism, and higher property values casinos supposedly generate, when all the social, moral, and monetary costs that they levy on cities are added up, they have almost always proven themselves to be financial and economic disasters.
Most of the outspoken opposition to Toronto’s casino has come from academics like me, journalists, religious groups, and civic activists. Toronto’s business leaders have been conspicuously mum on the subject — and on Mayor Rob Ford’s small-minded, anti-urban agenda. In addition to holding the mayor, pro-casino councillors, and the OLG accountable, civically-minded Torontonians should be asking where the city’s business and political leadership stands. Especially when you consider how many of the most outspoken opponents of casinos in other cities have turned out to be prominent business leaders.
A case in point is Warren Buffet, the über-successful investor. “I’m not a prude about it,” he said in 2007, “but to a large extent gambling is a tax on ignorance. I find it socially revolting when a government preys on the weakness of its citizenry rather than serving them. When a government makes it easy to take their Social Security and start pulling handles or playing lotto, it’s a pretty cynical act…. It receives taxes on the backs of those dreaming of a car or colour TV….it’s not government at its best.” When casino gambling was proposed in his home state of Nebraska, he took to the airwaves to oppose it, as seen in the above Fireside Chat.
The same is true of the Florida billionaire Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who vehemently opposes destination mega-casinos in South Florida. “If you open the door to casinos,” he told the journalist Eliott Rodriguez in the television interview posted above, “you are opening the door to crime and creating more unemployment. No proponent of casino gambling can name any place in the United States where casinos have revitalized a community. Actually, it’s had the opposite effect.” To Dylan Ratigan (the video is posted below) he said, “If you look at all the statistics concerning casinos throughout the United States, whether they’re riverboat or permanent, after three to five years, almost two jobs are lost for every one that’s created.” He makes an important point. As in Singapore, most places that introduce gambling see a quick upward spike, followed by a steep decline. Casino lobbyists prefer to talk about their early successes.
When all is said and done, gambling is one of the most regressive ways to generate public revenue and one of the least productive uses of money imaginable — it takes the most from the people who can afford it the least.
A glitzy mega-casino in the heart of downtown would be a direct affront to Toronto’s brand as a well-managed city of builders and investors. Taken together with Mayor Ford’s bizarre statements on gay rights, his move to abolish bike lanes, and the numerous scandals that surround him, it couldn’t but have a seriously deleterious effect on the city’s ability to attract people and thus on its long-run economic prosperity. As I told the Globe and Mail recently: “Casinos are brand killers. People in the outside world would say, ‘Toronto is a great city, so why are they putting a casino there?’ “
For everyone who’s concerned about Toronto’s future, it’s time to take score. Not just of who’s been in favour of such a city-ruining monstrosity and who’s been opposed to it, but who among the city’s so-called leaders have sat quietly on the sidelines.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post Canada on April 17, 2013.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
Two recent columns on the Urbanophile, one by Angie Schmitt called “A Culture of Corruption” and another by Aaron called “Do Cities Really Want Economic Development?” discuss how the forces of the status quo fight change. But sometimes you can create a new strategy for a place, based on its values, that will better embrace those values than what is happening now. This takes visionary leadership, as well as a “small is beautiful” approach to change as something that happens in the moment.
The Politics of Identity
In Detroit, the main problem is that local people are now being told that they are no longer Motown. This is a hard thing after being the center of the universe for cars for the last 100 years. How humiliating that Chrysler is now owned by Fiat, by old stereotypes an Italian maker of small under-powered cars. That’s why the Chevy Volt was so important when the feds took over GM take-over story: the government might be running things, but at least this new vehicle offered hope of a future in the limelight again.
In Port Townsend, WA, on the northwest corner of Puget Sound, there’s another identity play going on, this one to provide place-based education around maritime themes. Port Townsend is a small town of less than 10,000 people, but it is the wooden boat building capital of the United States. This is where people truck their old yachts to be restored, or refit work boats that go up to the fishery at Bristol Bay . The new schools superintendent talks of “making the city the classroom”, with the community, its surroundings and all things maritime as the subject of study. There is already a program there now, in operation for about ten years, in which seventh graders go down to the waterfront to learn rowing, and into shops at the maritime center where they learn geometry and measurement while building boats.
Now the superintendent wants to expand this program, pushing maritime subjects into every grade and class. Imagine biology students putting on rubber boots and going out on the tide flats to measure how the pH of the water is affecting oyster production, or third graders hiking up over the headlands of the old fort to look out at the lighthouse where the wind, waves and currents of Puget Sound collide. The key word here is “relevance”, of studying things that kids are already familiar with day to day, the beaches and boats they play on, the work stories they hear from their parents and grandparents at the dinner table. This isn’t learning in the abstract, some subject or formula they may or may not use later, but learning up close and personal, with things they can see, hear, touch and know. Imagine a town in western Pennsylvania saying that it wanted to make the study of steel, coal, rock, geology and making things part of its curriculum. If this had been done 25 or 30 years ago, with modern hands-on teaching, perhaps more of those towns would still have core industries in those fields, no longer giant, but perhaps re-oriented to niche markets, with highly trained workers who spoke “steel” or “glass” in their business conversations. In Port Townsend, they still speak “boat” there.
I haven’t met many charismatic leaders in my career, maybe two or three, but this new superintendent is one of them. He speaks in a low-key way that is the exact opposite of the bellicose corporate leaders who sound like high school coaches yelling at the football team. This guy is a former art teacher who still keeps colored pencils in a box in the center of his conference table, but he has a track record of success, both starting up a high school maritime academy in Seattle, and a Chinese language program in northern Nebraska.
More importantly, when he speaks, people listen. He uses techniques outlined by Stephen Denning in “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”, techniques like keeping the future stories simple so listeners put themselves in the hero’s role, and think about what they can do to make things happen.
Every hero story involves some kind of Joseph Campbell challenge, and in Port Townsend that challenge is keeping the kids from moving away, the same kind of Pied Piper challenge that so many Rust Belt cities face. Forty years ago this was a counter-culture place young people fled to, a back-water place with cheap housing, a strong sense of community, and a boatyard where they could buy and fix up old boats. Today retirees who have “discovered” Port Townsend have driving up housing prices, and there are not enough good jobs for young people.
That’s where the school superintendent’s vision comes in. For some years the community has had a vision of converting nearby Fort Worden as a “learning center” for adults, and now this new vision extends this down to their own children, putting the city on the map internationally as a place that does K-12 education differently, mixing and matching local institutions together to create “seamless” learning across ages. Part of the goal here is not just to make traditional topics more interesting and relevant, but to create a different world view about how kids can educate themselves and involve themselves in the world. The traditional, conveyor-belt model has kids taking STEM and AP classes in high school, getting an engineering or science or business major in college and then going out into the world, sometime in their early to mid 20s, to interview for a job. The vision in Port Townsend is not only to give kids and adults skills that they can use now, in their own community, but to get them to look around that community for unmet needs and, by age 15, to be thinking about how they can use their own skills to meet these and create a livelihood for themselves. There’s a fundamental shift in this educational outlook, one that kids are not simply charges to be brought up to state standards, but assets to the community, to be prepared for membership in it and contributions to it.
Small is Beautiful
In Washington State, there is no more powerful political group than the teachers’ unions, which fought the idea of charter schools tooth and nail. This may be home to Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon, but most of the young engineers here come from places like Michigan, not the state’s own schools.
That’s why it will take all of the new superintendent’s leadership skills to really make this vision a reality. The first changes have to be non-threatening, incremental programs that do not directly threaten the status quo. How do you do this? With programs that create small and immediate successes. One of these is expanding the partnership with the maritime center to include youth use of its pilot house simulator. That simulator also caused one of the country’s oldest training schools for professional mariners to open a branch operation here. That company was drawn in no small part by the vision of this place as a learning center for all things maritime, and shared use of that facility with youth.
In putting this new strategy forth to the community, both for K-12 education and as a broader economic development strategy, it is important to embrace the values of the community. Some, especially older workers in “heritage trades” like wooden boat building, might say that the community should only encourage the growth of jobs that involve hand crafts, Williamsburg-like preservation trades. In fact, though, the real heritage here is the tradition of craftsmanship and veneration for things well-made, especially those that relate to salt water. The value, then becomes quality, not how or what tools are involved in making something, but of what standard it is made to, and to what use it is put. In Port Townsend’s case, this opens the way to a whole new generation of craft manufacturing, of making things for maritime use out of new materials and with new methods like computer-aided design and manufacturing. We are already seeing a boom in this in places like West Berkeley, South San Francisco, East Cambridge and Brooklyn. It is ironic that these old counter-culture places, the places that people fled to find themselves, have become centers of business change. Why? Maybe it’s because their people now know what they love and value (including their children and grandchildren!), and are not willing to let the status quo get in the way of holding on to them.
Rod Stevens is a business development consultant on Bainbridge Island WA, specializing in urban ventures.
Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Last week I wondered how much the corporate logos on prominent office buildings affected the perception of a city. Today I want to briefly ask the reverse. Does the quality of the brand of a city a company is in affect the firm’s perception in the marketplace?
I had a conversation on this very point with someone probably a year or so ago. He noted that having a mailing address for his company in New York gave his firm a certain level of added credibility. People think, if you’re really good enough to have an office in New York City, or especially be based there, you must be the big time.
I’m not sure this has an impact on major consumer brands, though some companies are clearly linked in the public mind to certain localities. I don’t think the fact that Proctor and Gamble is in Cincinnati has any impact pro or con on what anybody thinks of Tide detergent, for example. But for smaller firms, especially in the professional services business, I think it does make a difference. Every business like that always has a slide in their pitch deck with a bunch of client logos of all the high profile places they’ve done similar work. The better your client list, the better I suppose. If it weren’t true, nobody would do it. Similarly, I think being able to boast of a high profile address in a high profile city makes a company just plain seem more credible in the marketplace at some level.
Thursday, March 14th, 2013
Rolls-Royce Logo on Building in Downtown Indianapolis. Photo courtesy Gary Glover.
While driving up and down Boston’s Route 128, I’ve often noticed the various tech company logos that adorn the office buildings – Oracle, SAP, Adobe, etc. Interestingly, most of the ones that catch my eye aren’t Boston area based companies. Yet the presence of these blue-chip tech names on the buildings reinforces in my mind that Boston is a tech center.
I had a similar thing happen when I was in Indy last fall. Rolls-Royce – which actually manufactures aircraft engines, not cars, but is definitely an elite global corporate player – has its North American headquarters in Indianapolis. They had recently moved their offices to downtown and installed their logo on the building, a low rise office on the southern edge of downtown. Driving into downtown Indianapolis and seeing a giant Rolls-Royce logo, whatever wrong impressions about product it might generate in the public mind, is still a pretty powerful statement.
By contrast, the various office buildings ringing Indianapolis along its I-465 beltway sport a largely unimpressive collection of signs for various local and regional brands: law firms, mortgage companies, that sort of thing. There’s very little to make much of an impression on a visitor that this town is a major center of much of anything.
Lots of things that we take in as we look at cities help define for us what the place is all about and where it stands in the pecking order. Though they may give very false impressions about a place, for good or ill, the brand prominence of corporate logos displayed on major office buildings would appear to be one of those things that shapes our opinions of what a city is really like.
Thursday, February 21st, 2013
Pretty much everyone is being forced to come to grips with the reality of the 21st century urban world. I’ve noted before that religious movements are no exception. As part of this trend, Christianity Today magazine has been doing a project called “This Is Our City” focused on urban issues. They’ve been profiling several cities during the course of the project, and this month’s city is Detroit.
I’m delighted to have an article about Detroit included as part of this. It’s called “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong.” In it I note how Detroit as a city is often little more than a movie screen onto which others project their ideas. Thus many of the reports you see about Detroit bear little resemblance to reality. Here’s an excerpt:
We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That’s not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we’d never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as “Rust Belt”—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.
But there’s a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit’s fate. In some ways the city has become America’s movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called “ruin porn” shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing how many of these are nearly devoid of actual people.
Many of these are clear variations on the “canary in a coal mine” theme: If we as a broader society don’t change our ways, we will end up like Detroit. This is in marked contrast to say a “Rust Belt” label or the various movie stereotypes of New York, which are at least rooted in some local reality. What makes Detroit’s projected identities different is that they largely are rooted in a reality external to Detroit itself. Whatever your pet idea or phobia, Detroit seems to be the perfect lens through which to explore it, and the screen upon which you can project it.
You might also be interested in perusing the other Detroit articles on the site, especially “Faith in a Fallen Empire,” and also “Why Church Partnerships Really Matter,” which discusses the Everyone A Chance to Hear (EACH) initiative that brought together a large number of regional churches in one of the few movements that is really working to bridge the city-suburb and racial divides that plague the city.
Here also is an interesting video about Riet Schumack and the youth gardening program she’s part of there. It’s an interesting window into an aspect of the urban agriculture movement that might be bigger in Detroit than anywhere else. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
Sunday, February 17th, 2013
One of my favorite weekly sites to visit is Peter De Lorenzo’s Autoextremist, self-described as the “bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high octane truth”. Interestingly, I had that motto in mind when starting this blog, though I hope I’m a bit less bare knuckled than Mr. Autoextremist.
A recent rant of the week was about what it takes to make people love cars. I thought virtually all of this was true of cities as well. He notes first that what people tell you in focus groups or surveys isn’t at all what they really base buying decisions on.
Get a group of people in a room and ask what’s important to them when they consider the purchase of a new car or truck, and the answers are as predictable as the sun coming up in the East. The words that will be regurgitated back to the moderator are inevitably ‘safety,’ ‘fuel economy,’ ‘reliability’ and of course, ‘quality.’
And manufacturers that actually take those responses as gospel do so at their peril, because everyone will recite those words when asked, but no one will actually go to a showroom or an auto show and abide by their own list of ‘must haves’ when picking out a new car or truck.
Why? It’s simple, really. Words alone don’t motivate people to buy cars or trucks. There has to be an emotional connection on some level, no matter if you’re spending used car money or picking up a new Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe.
Exactly. If you want to inspire people to want to live in your town, whether that be to stay there or to move there, you need to be selling a product that creates that emotional connection. There’s no magic formula for this. You see both big cities and small towns that do it, and those that don’t.
How do you create that emotional connection? Branding and marketing is part of it, but that’s only the icing on the cake. Continues De Lorenzo:
Great advertising can create an aura for a car or truck, there’s no doubt (e.g., Hal Riney’s original Saturn campaign), but that won’t matter if the vehicle in question has the emotional appeal of a rake.
Like they say, “lipstick on a pig” isn’t going to cut it. So what does? For automobiles, it is great design.
This is where great design comes in. Some people in this business still need to be reminded of the real impact of great design, which is shocking to me. You only have to look as far as the new Malibu to be reminded of the power of great design. Do you remember the previous model? Didn’t think so. It was swiftly relegated to Rental Car Land because it had all the presence of a fax machine.
GM did a superb job on the 2008 Malibu in every respect, and they even spent proper, big-time money on a comprehensive launch – for the first time in its history – in order to get the car into the public’s consciousness. But if the new Malibu didn’t have great design language inside and out, it wouldn’t be having near the impact on the market – or on the company’s bottom line – that it is today (transaction prices are up anywhere from $4,000 – $5,000 over the previous Malibu).
I’ve been an advocate for great urban design for quite sometime. I think it can be a key ingredient in the overall package. But for a city, that’s not enough. I’ve said before, you’ve got to identify a target market, and a vision that appeals to that target market. This comes from a rich understanding of what you authentically are as a city and what you want to be. Vegas figured it out. Austin figured it out. Portland figured it out. As I recently noted, even Houston figured it out. There’s nothing stopping other cities from doing the same. It takes finding that vision, then a relentless focus on execution over the long term.
This post originally ran on April 2, 2008.
Tuesday, December 4th, 2012
Although less ambitious than I originally intended, my State of Chicago series still ended up taking 20 installments spread out over several months. For those of you who did not see it all, I’m presenting here a complete index of the articles in the series.
The Second-Rate City? (published in City Journal)
Part One: Civic Conditions
The Decline and Rise – Chicago’s Rust Belt malaise of the 70s and 80s followed by the boom years of the 90s.
New Century Struggles – Chicago takes a hard fall in the 2000s
New Century Strengths – Things that remain right with Chicago
Chicago, Summer Crime, and the Slide Towards Detroit – Mark Bergen writes an aside on Chicago’s recent crime problems, and it’s affect on the city
Explaining the 1990s vs. the 2000s – A look at why, if the structural problems I will outline in subsequent posts were always there, did Chicago’s performance diverge so much between these two decades
The Risks of Recovery – Don’t let an uptick lull you into a false sense of security
Part Two: Framing the Problems
Lacking a Calling Card Industry – How Chicago’s lack of a signature industry that can drive superior wealth generation and economic output hampers the city
What Is a Global City? – Some general thoughts on what a global citi s
Chicago As a Global City – Chicago’s weakness as a global city
Hog Butcher No More, But Service Purveyor to Same? – Chicago Fed Economist Bill Testa shows that Chicago’s economy is still linked to the greater Midwest and the manufacturing cycle as a whole
Gaps in Chicago’s Global City Fabric – Chicago’s weaknesses as a global city in areas like media and fashion.
Part Three: Fixing Chicago
Rahm’s Work in Progress – Things Mayor Rahm Emanuel is already doing to address Chicago’s challenges.
Rethinking Brand Chicago – It’s time for Chicago to stop branding itself as global city goo and give the world a punch in the face with a little old school Chicago.
Some Additional Chicago Fixes – A roundup of items I’ve already covered in depth elsewhere, and so won’t repost as part of this series.
Thought’s on Chicago’s Tech Scene – Chicago tech is strong – stronger than I anticipated it would be. But a few tweaks would help.
The Midwest’s Global Gateway – Aligning Chicago’s global ambitions with being the regional capital of the Midwest
Improving Chicago’s Business Climate – A number of specific recommendations for improving the business climate of the city, particularly in the neighborhoods and for small businesses.
Chicago’s Northwest Indiana Advantage
Goodbye, Chicago – Thoughts on leaving Chicago.
Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
There is a new video out marketing Cleveland and a new slogan: “Downtown Cleveland: It’s here”. Now, I struggle with critiquing it. One the one hand, I get its energy and optimism: the energy in Downtown is palpable, real—there is a bit of a youth movement to the core—and hence the compilation of images, sounds, and narratives that are trying to capitalize and communicate what is going down.
On the other hand, I see it as another missed opportunity. The message reads blasé. Tastes like a spoon of new car smell. In fact it could be about anywhere—Nashville, Cincinnati, Tampa, etc.; that is, instead of exposing what Cleveland really is and what’s unique about it, it’s distinctiveness as an attraction is buried in amenity-driven microphone-ing that screams we have sports teams and a casino and restaurants and the yet-spoiled exuberance of the young. But when you think about Cleveland—I mean honestly think about Cleveland: about its guts and soul and heart and people—is this the kind of stuff that comes to mind?
Of course not. So why do it?
Firstly, it speaks to a larger method of city revitalization that has been running America for some time. Here, the creative classification method entails imposing a rather homogenous, universal cool over a given city topography. Glitz, glamor, glass condos, and sports heroes. Bike paths and food trucks. Millennium Park Jr.’s. Etc. But with this whitewashing comes the chipping away at Cleveland’s Rust Belt soul. And it is this soul, mind you, that is a real attraction. After all, what is so hot about going everywhere when you can go somewhere?
And yes: Cleveland is a somewhere and has a something. This thing is part cultural, part aesthetic, part historical, and part a consequence of having to go on in the face of adversity. It is part wit, part ironic, part self-deprecating, but also part stand your ground in the defense of where you came from. And it’s all real, not ephemeral: our distinctiveness arising less from donning another city’s success than stripping naked and showing our nuts and bolts. Our warts. Our knuckles and heart.
Secondly, and this speaks to the marketing machine in general, but outfits that produce messaging at this level just cannot get beyond the culture of the boardroom from which the message emerges. Corporatism repels risk. And this not only relates to branding professionals but also to the customers seeking the brand. It’s like everyone knows their audience and their audience is everyone. It’s all about that one type we want, they say, and we want thousands of them. It is a safe strategy, riskless. But Cleveland doesn’t need safe. Playing it conservative has just kept us secure in our knowledge that we are always revitalizing. Instead, step outside, show your face to the world, as branding is and always has been about differentiation. But to do that you need to be aware and secure in knowing what makes you different.
It is alright. People will like you. And if they don’t, so be it. The coolest will. Said Anthony Bourdain in his “No Reservations: Cleveland” trip:
I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philharmonic.
Update: A friend commented to me that authenticity and grit can’t be marketed. Well, check this new video out from Memphis. They got it. I get a feel for who they are. And it makes me want to check the city out.
This post originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic on November 1, 2012.