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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Cincinnati Is Cool by Mike Doyle

[ In 2008 Chicago Carless blogger Mike Doyle took a trip to Cincinnati and was blown away - Aaron. ]


(Photo: “I am Cincinnati; no flashbulbs, please.”–Leah Spurrier, co-founder of the Queen City’s fabulous High Street.)

I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP.

I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away. (See trip photos in my Picasa web album.)

That came especially as a shock considering the trip it took to get there. I had only ridden Indiana highways once before, on the way into Chicago five years previous with my refugee New York possessions. I remember two things from that drive: boredom from passing through 150 miles of the middle of nowhere; and thinking that the radio announcers were pulling my leg every time they mentioned “Michiana”.

I longed for that kind of action on last month’s 300-mile lengthwise schlep through the Hoosier state, highlighted only by a construction detour through the environmental degradation of Gary and ironic graffiti on a men’s room wall in Crown Point that read, “NASCAR: The other white race”. We intended to stop in downtown Indianapolis for me to take a look at the place. However, once I got a look at the skyline from the I-465 ring road, even after the three-hour drive from Chicago, I felt humming the theme to One Day at a Time and simply passing through sufficed.

It would be another hour to get out of flatland followed by a meandering drive past the Ohio border through hills and ravines on snaky I-75 before the next cityscape of any significance. Descending through Cincinnati’s West Side, following the course of the massive railyards in the valley below, the skyline took me by surprise. I half-expected yet another bombed-out rust belt burb whose downtown had been whacked with the ugly stick of Post-Modernism.

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(Photo: Cincinnati at dusk, from Covington, Kentucky.)

Yet, as we neared the Ohio River flats that house downtown, the pre-war Carew Tower and PNC Bank building took my breath away. Not just for their elegant, pre-war terra cotta beauty. But also because their still-prominent placement in the center of the skyline, neither upstaged nor blocked by taller, newer buildings, suggested in an instant a city respectful of the aesthetics of its built form.

From its history, that could follow or come as a complete surprise. Queen City of the West, Cincinnati was the first major inland American metropolis. Its early nineteenth-century commerce paved the way for the commercial giants of the latter 1800s, cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the city gave freedom to thousands of slaves as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad and, at the turn of the last century, cleanliness to millions of Americans as the birthplace of Ivory Soap.

Then again, Cincinnati’s brightest economic times happened in another millennium, and it also happens to be the only city in the nation to build an entire subway transit system, in the 1920s, only to brick it over for the next 80 years due to insufficient funds. So there’s a lot of unrealized potential and missed opportunity tied up in the civic psyche, too. Given all that, I was just happy the two towers were still standing.

We were heading for out first stop: Park & Vine, the hugely successful organic general store run by Chicagoland Bicycle Federation-escapee Dan-doesn’t-drive-either Korman. But first, Jamie gave me the nickel tour.

We exited I-75 at the riverfront and drove along the pedestrian-friendly deck hiding the now-sunken highway, past Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Roebling Bridge (little brother to my hometown bridge in Brooklyn). For a city of barely 330,000, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort made to liven the river’s edge here and link it back in to the rest of downtown.

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(Photo: Looking north across Over-the-Rhine from condo deck of the American Building on Central Parkway.)

Dan’s store sits in Over-the-Rhine, the gentrifying–but not too much–neighborhood on the north end of downtown, nestled beneath the imposing hills that make up much of the rest of the city. Now civic leaders want to build a modern, Portland-style streetcar between downtown and the still-downtrodden neighborhood to try and jumpstart investment there. A lot of people think the streetcar plan will just go the way of the subway–i.e. to nowhere.

Jamie could see the trained-urban planner in me already salivating at the ped-friendly streets, so we meandered through downtown on our way to Over-the-Rhine, with him as tour guide.

“That’s the Aronoff Center for the Arts, but look on the other side, too, the new building is the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a Zaha Hadid building.”

Readers are getting the benefit of the URLs I wished had access to while Jamie commented on.

“Don’t look know–and don’t sing, either. That’s Fountain Square and Tyler Davidson Fountain from WKRP in Cincinnati fame. They show movies there during the summer. Carew Tower is catty-corner, and the modernist building is Fifth Third Bank Headquarters.”

I marveled at the number of pedestrians. “Is downtown always this peopled so late in the day?” I asked.

“I think there’s a football game later, but for the past few years it’s been like Chicago,” said Jamie. “More and more people come down here to play after work. Maybe we’ll come back later for the movie on Fountain Square. Now get out, we’re there.”

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(Photo: Over-the-Rhine’s Park & Vine general store.)

We hadn’t told Dan we were coming. Even after the bear hug that passed between him and Jamie, I could see him still beaming. The stress of the Bike Federation long gone, in the two years since his return to the Queen City, Dan Korman had finally become a happy man.

“Did you see the wallets made out of recycled bicycle tires?” He pulled one off a display shelf. “Look! Some of them still have the writing from the tire on them. That’s so cool!”

When he told me in 2006 he was ditching his Windy City communications career to open what I figured would be a glorified hemp shop in a marginal nabe of a secondary rust-belt town, I thought he had already begun smoking his product. As I purchased my recycled bicycle-tire wallet with the writing still on it from the happiest man on Vine Street, I knew Dan had made the right decision.

“Are you staying at the condo?” Dan asked Jamie.

“No, I have a renter in there. We’re staying in East Walnut Hills, in a rental condo that one of my client’s owns at the Edgecliff.”

“Did you guys go see Matt and Leah at High Street yet?”

“Not yet,” Jamie said. “But Michael will love it when we do. He seems to already be in love with Cincinnati.”

“Really!” said Dan. “Huh. It’s cool. Who knew, right?”

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(Photo: Jamie with happy Dan Korman, owner of Park & Vine.)

Next stop: a strong black woman. A 20-year Cincinnati resident, Jamie needed to check on the condo he left behind when he moved to Chicago three months ago. He left it behind in the American Building, another handsome, pre-war former office tower built on the border between downtown and Over-the-Rhine to wait for the subway down Central Parkway that never came. That’s ok, Jamie’s ex-next-door neighbor and former flight attendant, the very tony Toni, seemed to get around well enough without one.

“Oh my, it is so good to see you, Jamie! Let me tell you, you are lucky to have caught me and I’ll tell you why. I shall probably be leaving in a few days to bring some shoes to be fixed in Seoul–that’s South Korea. I had previously asked my friend to take them on ahead but she said no and now it falls to me to carry them all that way and you know, don’t you, that Miss Toni is a bit put out because of it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be monopolizing the conversation. What do you think of my new artwork?”

As Toni paused to inhale–as I would come to learn, a rare occasion worthy of remark–I started to see the attractive side of Jamie’s 350-mile move away from her side of the common wall.

“I really had to come back to fix a problem with my car title so I can get Illinois plates,” said Jamie.

“Problem? What problem? Tell Toni about your problems, honey!”

“Well, the bank forgot to tell the DMV that I paid off my car note years ago, so there’s still a lien on my title,” said Jamie. “Wells Fargo told me I had to come here in person to clear it up.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

Then again, it’s always nice to have a strong black woman in your corner.

“You know what I’d do?” said Toni. “I’d piss on ‘em. No! I’d get a kid, a seven-year-old kid. Wouldn’t that be good? A kid of my own and I’d take him down to the bank with me and just when they stopped doing their job to give me grief I’d give the signal and my boy would whip it out. Just whip it out and piss all over them! Yes!”

From the look of the people I’d seen on the streets on the way through town, Toni was definitely not a stereotypical Cincinnatian. I had noted the uniformity of uniforms: flower-print blouses and black polyester trousers for women; dark, three-piece suits or slacks and tweed sport coats for men. (I figured the latter were county courthouse lawyers.)

I chalked up the Softer Side of Sears-ness of it all as the stylistic impact of the city’s main employers: the national headquarters or back offices of conservative banks (Fifth/Third Bank, U.S. Bank); conservative grocers (Kroeger); and conservative conglomerates (Macy’s, Proctor & Gamble). I couldn’t imagine any of these uniformed office drones ever whipping it out to give some unsuspecting clerk a bath.

Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.

“I’d even like to piss on some of the heifers that live further up in the neighborhood. Always with a hand out. Get a job, stop having babies, grow up! I had a career. I saw the world. I lived on Michigan Avenue. I hope that streetcar plan happens. We didn’t get a subway, but that streetcar will push ‘em all like rats away from a flood. Then you’ll see how good this neighborhood will become.”

The haves lashing into the have-nots in the Black community is not a practice confined to southwestern Ohio. But my introduction to the social dichotomies of Cincinnati was just beginning.

Finally sneaking away from Toni during one particularly deep pause to inhale and sip a sparkling tonic, Jamie and I headed for the hills. For the next couple of hours until dusk, he drove us to every scenic outlook above downtown, then across the Roebling Bridge into Kentucky, to peer back at the city from the Covington shore.

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(Photo: Daniel Carter Beard Bridge to Newport, Kentucky. Can you guess why locals call it Big Mac?)

The scenery felt familiar, like coming home, in a way. At each stop, as I
gazed at the city, I remembered the half-hour I spent sitting atop steep Parque Eduardo VII and peering down across Lisbon, between the Bairro Alto and Alfama hills, towards the old downtown Baixa. The visible terrain and ineffable energy touched me then, and try as my Portuguese friend, José, might, I would not be moved away from the view.

I felt the same tug inside every time I looked back across Cincinnati. As if, although I wasn’t of the place, in some way, some part of me was consonant with it. I knew I was falling for the city.

That love would deepen in short order. At sundown, we headed for Ludlow Avenue, ground zero of the student-laden Clifton neighborhood, to sample an entirely different skyline. There’s no need to mince words here. In one meal, I became an official Skyline Chili crack whore. Give me the mild chocolate-cinnamon laced chili in a five-way (ladled over spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese) or on a coney (a Cinncinati hot dog with mustard, chili, and onions), I don’t care. I wanted–and still want–more. Now please. Sooner if possible.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to like the chili any more than I thought I’d be taken by the city. But as the evening wore on, I started to rethink my raging bias against small Midwestern urbs. The black raspberry chip 1870 Tower sundae I inhaled down the street at Graeter’s French-churned ice cream helped a little bit, too. (And considering how much chili I had already eaten, I was in no way surprised by Jamie’s look of abject shock when I ordered it).

We would have headed back to the Edgecliff then, but Jamie remembered my earlier question about evening liveliness downtown. He let me answer my own question as we sat on Fountain Square with several hundred Cincinnatians and their children watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory projected onto the roof of Macy’s across Walnut Street until long past even our bedtimes.

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(Photo: Love at first bite–Skyline Chili cheese coneys and a five-way.)

The next two days were a similar whirlwind of food, friends, and from-left-field observations about Cincinnati life. In the morning, we shared the best dim sum I’ve ever had in or out of Chicago at Clifton’s King Wok, with Jamie’s designer friend, Huong, and her young daughter, Hannah. While Huong explained the dating difficulties faced by a Vietnamese single-mom in southwestern Ohio, I was busy teaching her frantically energetic daughter how to walk like a giraffe-a-gator (“Stand on your tiptoes with your arm raised above your head, sneak up behind them, then CHOMPA-CHOMPA-CHOMPA!”).

Huong’s news was far less whimsical. “He was Anglo. We’d been talking online for awhile and he seemed like a nice guy. I think he’s about to ask me out, then he says ‘I have rice fever really bad tonight.’ What the fuck is that? Like he has no idea how insulting that is. Like he lives in a totally different world than I do.”

That’s exactly how I felt as Huong segued into a discourse about the Vietnamese practice of giving children dirty nicknames to ward off evil spirits. She whispered, “Hannah’s is ‘dirty black cock’. You guys should have one.”

I considered Jamie for a moment, then asked Huong, “How do you say ‘toothpaste poop’ in Vietnamese?”

Worlds would continue to miss colliding later that afternoon while Jamie and I visited the Museum Center inside the renovated historic Union Terminal. We lucked into a free tour of the building with a tour group comprised mostly of locals. I spent the whole time confused by an oddly handsome Kentucky bubba who apparently had no idea his bad-ass booted self was wearing women’s jeans. Yet when he opened his mouth to ask a question, the thick, south-shore drawl delivered a thoughtfully phrased query on the aesthetic merit of a restored mural.

“It’s always like that with the bubbas,” said Jamie. “Some cute construction worker with a day to kill, maybe an architecture hobbyist. But there’s always that touch of idiot savant about them that ends them up in the wrong department at Wal-Mart.”

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(Photo: Fountains outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal.)

I thought that was a bit harsh. Then again, my New York friend, Tony “You’d have to kill me to make me go back there” Skaggs, never had a kind word to say about growing up in Cincinnati’s Kentucky suburbs, either. By now I was wondering whether some unknown organism in the city’s infamously toxic water had the side-effect of turning fellow citizens bitchy towards each other.

I continued to wonder that evening, while supping with a couple of Jamie’s local friends on mind-blowing steak tartare and calf’s liver and onions in downtown Cincinnati’s sublime Bistro JeanRo, as one of them began to opine on the streetcar plan so near and dear to tony Toni’s heart.

“It’ll never get built. Mark my words. Who is it going to serve? The ‘element’. Who’s going to ride it? The ‘element’. Do you want to ride next to the ‘element’? I don’t. Is it gonna go anywhere I want to go? No. Who’s supposed to pay for it? The rest of us. Is that fair?”

Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone within earshot had managed to hear the openly racist comments that had just emerged from our table. How balkanizing the properties of a civic social contract must be to allow locals to feel free enough to share shitty thoughts like that in the company of strangers (like me). More upsetting, by evening’s end, I was pretty sure Jamie’s friend had no clue at all about the implications of the things he had said.

How to parse a city of aesthetic beauty, civic pride, high cultural amenities, and, at the most unexpected times, low social graces? I found myself pulling for the place, despite the intellectual box I was coming to see some locals gratuitously living in. I wanted to stay an extra day to figure the place out a little better.

That was fine with Jamie, who still hadn’t been able to work things out with Wells Fargo (I half expected him to fill Toni up on tonic water and drag her and her bladder down to their nearest office). We wouldn’t be remaining at the Edgecliff. Unbeknownst to us, the unit we were staying in had been sold, and our desired third night coincided exactly with closing day.

Not that we were attached to the Edgecliff. Although we didn’t want to have to scramble to look for new digs, we were pretty certain wherever we ended up would be more permissive. Jamie had no doubt when we left, I’d be taking the property’s asinine folder of dos and dont’s with me. The best missive was almost Marina City worthy:

PLUMBING INFORMATION

Acceptable:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.

Not Acceptable in Commodes or Sinks:
Quilted toilet tissue.
Kleenex.
Dental floss.
Depends.
Sanitary napkins.
Any type of wipe.
Paints.
Drywall mud.
Potting soil.
Kitty litter.
Grease.
Construction debris of any type.

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street, according to Cincinnati magazine–and me once I got there–one of the coolest home design and lifestyle stores anywhere, to beg fabulous co-owner Matt Knotts for a place to crash for the night. The answer was yes, but Matt was in the middle of a meeting with partner Leah. So we waved our thanks through their office window and set out for another round of Queen City adventure.

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(Photo: Best home design store in Cincinnati, High Street. Do I get that blue chair, now?)

What to do on a bonus afternoon in Cincinnati with a veritably still-chili-virgin in the car? Swing by Over-the-Rhine to pick up tony Toni and head out for more coneys. But tony Toni eats no coneys bought at Skyline.

“Honeys, don’t you know, now there is this Gold Star Chili I’ve seen underneath the I-75 Bridge in Covington, and now I think we’ve got to go, yes!”

And as everyone knows, there’s just no arguing with a strong black woman (not unless you want to end up with a wet pants leg), so half an hour later and there we were in Kentucky, munching down five-ways and coneys at the Gold Star where Covington bubbas go to pass around the communal tooth.

And a good thing they did, because I’d never have understood the wait staff if they hadn’t. Nonexistent teeth aside, this Gold Star did teach me two things: one, I’m definitely a Skyline man; and two, it’s probably time for me to stop avoiding the dentist.

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(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)

Later, with Toni no longer in tow, we headed back to the fabulosity of High Street, only to find that Matt had already split for the afternoon. However his partner, the unsinkable Leah Spurrier, had not.

“You guys want to hear about my book? One of them anyway, I have a lot of ideas rolling around, but this is the one I just took three weeks off to begin writing. It’s about my life as a northern Californian Jew raised in Tennessee by a genuine Haight-Ashbury mother. When I was little, I used to ask my grandma why mom always looked the way she did. And grandma would answer back, ‘Because she’s always stoned, dear.’”

Leah seemed a far cry from the collection of Cincinnati social misfits I had spent the previous three days variously being warned about or meeting. I asked her what people thought of her store in such a conservative city.

“You know, Cincinnati is cooler than you might think. Downtown has a lot going on, a lot of new businesses and residents in Over-the-Rhine. We’re actually starting a blog on High Street’s website to try and help the buzz along. It’s not Chicago, I love that city. But people know there’s potential here, if they’d just loosen up and listen. I think a lot of them are just waiting to be told how good we’ve got it here.”

It’s rare for the cool people to be pulling for the squares, even rarer for the squares to be hoping to come along for the ride. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Matt and Leah might be on to something.

That night, Jamie and I luxuriated in Matt’s style-forward Liberty Hill townhouse. The papier-maché caricatures under glass on the coffee table entranced me for an hour as Jamie tried to teach Matt how to Twitter.

Over dinner, we were all entranced by the twittering of a female patron at Ludlow Avenue’s Ambar Indian, a real contender for the title of worst South Asian food in Ohio. If it hadn’t been for her outlandishly loud yammerings to an embarrassed boyfriend who asked at one point for her to write down her side of the conversation on a napkin, we might have been more miffed when, in mid-meal, the wait staff at this palace of putrid pulled out a glue gun and started performing repair work on a nearby wall.

We washed those troubles away with another trip to Graeter’s (I won’t bother telling you how many pounds the scale said I gained after I got back to Chicago–feel free to insert your own weight here: ___) and retired back to the manse of Matt-fabulous. There, he told us more about his plans for local Internet domination.

“We want to use the High Street blog as a jumping off point, to create community. But we’re also creating a separate blog for the city. We want it to have downtown news, happenings, events, design, food, to really hook people together. We’re calling it, ‘Cincinnati Is Cool’. The name’s not as wooden as it sounds. All these boring corporate types always say the city is cool, but they never follow it up with action. We want the name to be a blunt reminder that this city has a lot to offer.”

I looked Matt dead in the eye. “Have you ever heard of Gapers Block? There’s this guy, Andrew Huff, I definitely think you should know…”

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(Photo: Angelic Matt and Jamie at Ludlow Avenue Graeter’s.)

The next morning, after making one last run towards the end-zone of teaching Matt to use Twitter, we rolled up the remains of our trip and packed them in the car to head home. We hugged Matt, headed to Park & Vine to say our good-byes to Dan, made one final (and finally successful) trip to the DMV for Jamie, and then it was time to roll out of town.

But not before one last stop (or so we thought) at a fabled Cincy eatery. As my plate of undercooked biscuits and gravy and over-singed fried eggs attested, Tucker’s, in deepest Over-the-Rhine, is not known for its food. But the family-run ramshackle joint, a seedy combination of half-hinged doors, swaying tables, and questionable sanitary practices, has been feeding all comers for 60 years. The morning of our visit, that included downtown office workers, local yuppies, and most interestingly, a steady stream of poor black kids and young men from the surrounding neighborhood.

The hustle the last group of diners put the white wait staff through, trying to enter without shirts and bargain down bills, didn’t go down with the same indignant fervor on both sides I would have expected from Chicago. These were downtrodden locals in a barely hanging-on corner eatery. The beleaguered nods and smiles that passed among all parties was perhaps my best clue into the soul of Cincinnati.

There was no artifice here. Nothing was prettified. Just basic communication passing among familiar faces. Unexpected, a bit shocking in its primal quality. But not out of place. It did make me wonder whether inside the average Queen Citizen beat the heart of a conformer. We may be down, but we’re down together, and as long as we lie low, things can’t get much worse, so let’s just leave well enough alone.

Was that the unrealized potential Matt and Leah were aiming to mobilize?

Getting lost in the West Side hills on the way out of town was a great excuse to stop thinking and driving in circles and make our real final food stop: Putz’s Creamy Whip. More old-school Cincinnati: roadside shack; cash-only; fabled Coneys; double-thick malteds. The menu didn’t exaggerate, I nursed my concrete-consistency malted until well into Indiana.

We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).

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(Photo: Tyler Davidson Fountain at night.)

Arriving home in the Windy City, the Loop felt positively enormous after three days in Cincinnati. Yet the Queen City still loomed large in my mind. It still does. Two weeks of wondering, and I think I’ve hit on why. Despite the unrealized potential of the place–including the potential for locals to realize how good they really have it (and in this, Chicago and Cincinnati share a similarly misplaced civic modesty)–unlike other, far more time- and budget-ravaged rust belt cities, in Cincinnati the potential is pungent and palpable, not limping on life support.

In the end, I think those upstart Internet impresarios Matt and Leah have a point. Change happens thanks to thoughtful souls brave enough to believe in the fortune cookie of potential. When these two finally smash it open, I have no doubt in their case the slip of paper within will read in big, block letters, “CINCINNATI IS COOL!”

And in small print on the flipside, “Who knew?”

This post originally appeared in Chicago Carless on September 9, 2008.

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

On the Riverfront

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Image via ArchCityHomes

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Building a More Dynamic Cincinnati

This post originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on April 8, 2014.

Cincinnati arguably has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. So why has the region been stagnant to slow-growing for so many decades?

When you look at the stunning collection of advantages and assets of Cincinnati – its geography; the amazing dense, historic architecture (great contemporary architecture, too); top-notch cultural institutions; a large corporate presence; and so many pieces of local culture and flavor of a type that has been homogenized away in most places – it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Yet since 1970, while the U.S. has grown by nearly 52 percent in population, the Cincinnati region grew by 26 percent, only half as fast. Other than Dayton, the other surrounding metro areas have also grown about twice as fast or more than Cincinnati. Cincinnati has lagged on jobs, too.

How is this? How can Cincinnati have the best stuff, but be a growth laggard?

Part of it is that all the assets in the world don’t help you if you don’t take advantage of them. Most of these are located in Cincinnati’s delightful urban core. But Cincinnati has to some extent abandoned that core in favor of low-grade sprawl.

The city of Cincinnati has lost a big chunk of population, and its regional share dropped from about 40 percent in 1950 to only 14 percent today. By contrast, New York City is still at 45 percent regional population share today. And while it’s a slow-growing region, too, the city of New York is at an all-time high in population and is booming in many ways, such as its tech and real estate industries.

Even Hamilton County has lost population as a whole, dropping by about 120,000 since 1970. By comparison, Indianapolis’s almost identically sized Marion County gained 135,000 during the same period – this in a place with far fewer obvious assets.

What’s more, unlike its fabulous core, Cincinnati’s sprawl isn’t even that good for the most part. So Cincinnati has chosen to fight its battle where it has few marketplace advantages instead of leveraging its unique and compelling assets.

This has proven a demographically, economically and financially unimpressive strategy. Instead, urban Cincinnati and Hamilton County should align available financial resources to make the most out of the amazing urban environment and assets that exist there.

Meanwhile, the suburbs aren’t going anywhere and will continue to grow, so they should seek to do so on a higher-quality pattern that will be financially sustainable long-term. The problem with sprawl is often less about the environmental impacts than the fact that as they age, older suburbs that weren’t very high-income to begin with become financial albatrosses as they fill up with dead malls, aging and less market-attractive homes, legacy costs and similar issues. And unlike the high-quality classic architecture of the core, they’ve as yet proven less adaptable over the long term.

The wonderful collection of assets Cincinnati has may also have bred complacency. Another name for an asset is “the stuff we did yesterday.” But what are we building for tomorrow? What is our generation’s contribution to the pot?

Cities like Columbus that started out with much less understood in their gut that they needed to go out and create some things. They were hungrier. Cincinnati needs to recover some of that hunger and fire in the belly that motivates other places that are keenly aware of what they lack and are fighting every day to improve.

Cincinnati has also been plagued with deep and counterproductive community divisions. This includes the East Side-West Side split, city vs. suburb, three states, tea partiers vs. liberals, racial divisions, etc. This makes it harder to get things done than it should be because there’s no civic consensus. The streetcar debate makes that very clear.

Cincinnati needs to find a way to heal these wounds and build a durable consensus while leaving room for appropriate debate.

A strategy that works with, not against, the unique qualities and competitive advantages of Cincinnati; a more aggressive, hungry civic attitude; and a way to bridge community divides are three of the things that will help Cincinnati to realize the sustainable growth and prosperity it should have in light of the fantastic place that it is and the incredible assets it has.

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Census Bureau Releases Updated Population Estimates

Last week the Census Bureau released 2013 population estimates for counties and metro areas. There are three main takeaways I saw: 1) the increasing dominance of large metro areas 2) the continued move to the Sunbelt and 3) deceleration of the exurbanization rate.

For the dominance of large metros, Richard Florida wrote this up over at Atlantic Cities. Here’s his money chart:

Clearly not all large metros are booming. And there are definitely thriving smaller places as well. But in the current economy, there’s a minimum scale you need to really be a viable competitor. I put that at 1-1.5 million in regional population. If you’re smaller than that, as a general rule you need some unique competitive asset such as oil (Fargo), state capital (Des Moines), a major university (Lafayette, IN), or some such. These figures are just more evidence for why aligning state economic development strategies is the right move. Don’t fight the tape.

By the way, some commenters criticized Florida for not including larger size categories and not proving correlation between size and population growth. But I don’t see that as the argument. Rather, it’s about the minimum viable scale issue. There’s a threshold value you need to hit.

The continued regional population shift to the South, and to a somewhat lesser extent the West, was well-highlighted by Wendell Cox. This isn’t popular in urban circles, but just as with the above, we have to start with actual reality. There was some view that the Great Recession would pop a Sunbelt bubble, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. Even a place with no heritage as a business center like Phoenix is growing again.

On the exurban migration change, a lot of core metro counties did better than expected. For example, Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) is shown as physically adding more people than any other county in the metro area. This is a county that has lost about 120,000 people since it’s peak population. Urban Cincy has the complete roundup.

I generally say that we should operate off of gold standard data (the Census Bureau’s population estimates being one such source) without trying to attack it when it doesn’t say what we like. So I’m going to roll with the headline numbers on county populations for the time being. But I do want to point out that last decade the Census Bureau vastly over-estimated urban populations. (Did the Census miss people in some locations like New York? Undoubtedly. But it’s hard to argue that the Census couldn’t find 25% of the entire population of the city of Atlanta. Outside of a handful of locales like Queens, I think the idea of large scale miscounts is off base). This decade the Census, much like state DOTs and their highway forecasts, has continued to double down on a false trend line. That’s why I say they may be on track for another estimating fiasco.

I would certainly encourage localities to correlate these estimates with other important data sources, especially hard count data for building permits and school enrollment, plus abandoned housing estimates. Can you foot those numbers to other things that are going on in your city?

Here’s a rundown of the statistics. All of these are only looking at metro areas of more than one million people.

Top 10 regions for net domestic migration:


Rank Metro Area 2011 2012 2013 Total
1 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 39,208 55,466 32,641 127,315
2 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 22,547 38,789 55,620 116,956
3 Austin-Round Rock, TX 30,240 31,041 25,908 87,189
4 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 4,389 36,582 32,014 72,985
5 Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 20,935 23,197 26,536 70,668
6 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 19,491 21,508 22,392 63,391
7 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 14,699 20,397 21,382 56,478
8 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 9,261 22,667 17,316 49,244
9 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 11,881 15,381 17,926 45,188
10 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 26,849 5,960 12,262 45,071

Top 10 Regions for Net International Migration:


Rank Metro Area 2011 2012 2013 Total
1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 119,836 124,773 128,042 372,651
2 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 48,925 51,367 52,706 152,998
3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 47,305 47,998 49,798 145,101
4 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 33,304 37,700 36,871 107,875
5 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 24,597 24,716 25,504 74,817
6 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 22,447 23,793 24,116 70,356
7 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 21,989 23,406 23,646 69,041
8 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 22,073 22,903 23,534 68,510
9 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 19,033 18,869 19,501 57,403
10 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 16,348 17,376 17,520 51,244

Here is a list of all large metro areas, ranked by percentage population change since July 1, 2010. Total population change is also included:


Rank Metro Area 2010 2013 Total Change Pct Change
1 Austin-Round Rock, TX 1,727,784 1,883,051 155,267 8.99%
2 Raleigh, NC 1,137,351 1,214,516 77,165 6.78%
3 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 5,948,689 6,313,158 364,469 6.13%
4 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 2,139,372 2,267,846 128,474 6.01%
5 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 2,153,288 2,277,550 124,262 5.77%
6 Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 2,553,829 2,697,476 143,647 5.62%
7 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 6,452,758 6,810,913 358,155 5.55%
8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 5,664,789 5,949,859 285,070 5.03%
9 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 2,223,635 2,335,358 111,723 5.02%
10 Oklahoma City, OK 1,257,883 1,319,677 61,794 4.91%
11 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 1,675,945 1,757,912 81,967 4.89%
12 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 3,448,425 3,610,105 161,680 4.69%
13 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 4,208,770 4,398,762 189,992 4.51%
14 Salt Lake City, UT 1,091,452 1,140,483 49,031 4.49%
15 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 5,581,524 5,828,191 246,667 4.42%
16 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 1,842,076 1,919,641 77,565 4.21%
17 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 5,304,197 5,522,942 218,745 4.12%
18 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 4,344,584 4,516,276 171,692 3.95%
19 Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 1,953,106 2,027,868 74,762 3.83%
20 New Orleans-Metairie, LA 1,195,757 1,240,977 45,220 3.78%
21 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 2,232,177 2,314,554 82,377 3.69%
22 San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 3,104,182 3,211,252 107,070 3.45%
23 Jacksonville, FL 1,349,095 1,394,624 45,529 3.37%
24 Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 1,892,323 1,953,961 61,638 3.26%
25 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 4,244,089 4,380,878 136,789 3.22%
26 Columbus, OH 1,906,243 1,967,066 60,823 3.19%
27 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 3,355,167 3,459,146 103,979 3.10%
28 Richmond, VA 1,210,015 1,245,764 35,749 2.95%
29 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 2,788,961 2,870,569 81,608 2.93%
30 Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA 2,154,417 2,215,770 61,353 2.85%
31 Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI 989,196 1,016,603 27,407 2.77%
32 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 4,564,054 4,684,299 120,245 2.63%
33 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 12,844,070 13,131,431 287,361 2.24%
34 Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD 2,715,312 2,770,738 55,426 2.04%
35 Kansas City, MO-KS 2,013,691 2,054,473 40,782 2.03%
36 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 1,237,851 1,262,261 24,410 1.97%
37 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 19,596,183 19,949,502 353,319 1.80%
38 Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 1,680,120 1,707,369 27,249 1.62%
39 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 1,326,595 1,341,746 15,151 1.14%
40 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 5,971,397 6,034,678 63,281 1.06%
41 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 1,129,096 1,140,300 11,204 0.99%
42 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN 2,117,344 2,137,406 20,062 0.95%
43 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 1,556,549 1,569,659 13,110 0.84%
44 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 9,470,335 9,537,289 66,954 0.71%
45 St. Louis, MO-IL 2,789,893 2,801,056 11,163 0.40%
46 Rochester, NY 1,080,081 1,083,278 3,197 0.30%
47 Pittsburgh, PA 2,356,658 2,360,867 4,209 0.18%
48 Providence-Warwick, RI-MA 1,601,798 1,604,291 2,493 0.16%
49 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 1,214,014 1,215,211 1,197 0.10%
50 Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 4,291,400 4,294,983 3,583 0.08%
51 Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY 1,135,314 1,134,115 -1,199 -0.11%
52 Cleveland-Elyria, OH 2,075,690 2,064,725 -10,965 -0.53%

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes

Daniel Hertz is back with another one of his great Chicago map posts and piece of data analysis. This time he looks at the decline of Chicago’s middle class in favor of the rich and poor in a post called “Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes.” I will let you read it on his site but will include the animated graphic. Pay particular attention to the gray, which is middle class neighborhoods.

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

The Great Skills Gap Myth

One of the great memes out there in trying to diagnose persistently high unemployment and anemic job growth during what is still, I argue, the Great Recession is the so-called “skills gap”. The idea here is that the fact that there are millions of unfilled job openings at the same time millions of people can’t find work can be chalked up to a lack of a skills match between unemployed workers an open positions. To pick one random example out of many, here’s the way US News and World Report put it last year:

Some 82 percent of manufacturers say they can’t find workers with the right skills. Even with so many people looking for jobs, we’re struggling to attract the next generation of workers. The message about the opportunities in manufacturing doesn’t seem to be reaching parents and counselors who help guide young people’s career ambitions.

We face two major problems – a skills gap and a perception gap. Today’s modern, technology-driven manufacturing is not your grandparents’ manufacturing, yet for many, talk of the sector evokes images from the Industrial Revolution.

What’s interesting about this is that the “skills gap” continues to have tremendous resonance in public policy discussions I come across although it’s very easy to find many mainstream press articles that challenge it. So I want to take my shot at the problem.

Is there a skill gap? In select cases I’m sure there’s a mismatch in skill, but for the most part I don’t think so. I believe the purported inability of firms to find qualified workers is due largely to three factors: employer behaviors, limited geographic scope, and unemployability.

Employer Behaviors

Let’s be honest, it’s in the best interest of employers to claim there’s a skills gap. The existence of such a gap can be used as leverage to obtain public policy considerations or subsidies. So there’s a self-serving element.

But beyond that, several behaviors of present day employers contribute to their inability to hire.

1. Insufficient pay. If you can’t find qualified workers, that’s a powerful market signal that your salary on offer is too low. Higher wages will not only find you workers, they also send a signal that attracts newcomers into the industry. Richard Longworth covered this in 2012. He explains that companies have refused to adjust their wages due to competitive pressures:

In other words, Davidson said, employers want high-tech skills but are only willing to pay low-tech wages. No wonder no one wants to work for them….So why doesn’t GenMet pay more? In other words, why doesn’t it respond to the law of supply and demand by offering starting wages above the burger-flipping level? Because GenMet is competing in the global economy. It can pay more than Chinese-level wages, but not that much more.

In other words, this company in question doesn’t have a skill gap problem, they have a business model problem. They aren’t profitable if they have to pay market prices for their production inputs (in this case labor). It’s no surprise firms in this position would be seeking help with their “skill gap” problem – it’s a backdoor bailout request.

2. Extremely picky hiring practices enforced by computer screening. If you’ve looked at any job postings lately, you’ll note the laundry list of skills and experience required. The New York Times summed it up as “With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection.” Also, companies have chopped HR to the bone in many cases, and heavily rely on computer screening of applicants or offshore resume review. The result of this automated process combined with excessive requirements is that many candidates who actually could do that job can’t even get an interview. What’s more, in some cases the entire idea is not to find a qualified worker to help legally justify bringing in someone from offshore who can be paid less.

3. Unwillingess to invest in training. In line with the above, companies no loner want to spend time and money training people like they used to. I strongly suspect most of those over 50 machinists and such we keep hearing about learned on the job. Why can’t companies simply train people in the skills they need? When I started work at Andersen Consulting in 1992, we weren’t expected to have any specific skill. Instead, they were looking for general aptitude and spent big to train us in what we needed to know. In a sense, outside of some professional services fields, today’s companies, despite their endless talk about talent, don’t actually recruit talent at all. They are recruiting people with specific skills and experience. That’s a very different mindset.

4. Aesthetic hiring. This one I think is specific to select industries, but in some fields if you don’t have the right “look”, you’re going to find it difficult. For example, the NYT Magazine just today has a major piece called “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” talking about this very issue. Hip, cool startups see their working environment and culture as critical to success. And that’s true, but those cultures aren’t very inclusive, which is why many Silicon Valley firms are continuously under fire for various forms of discrimination. When they’re trying to be the hot new thing, the last thing an app startup wants is some 55 year old dude with a pocket protector cramping their style, no matter how much of a tech guru he might be.

Limited Geographic Scope

You frequently see the skills gap phrased in terms of specific geographies. For example, a state. Rhode Island has X number of unemployed people and Y number of unfilled jobs. So what do we do to match them up?

This type of thinking is too limited. I attended an hour brainstorming session on the Rhode Island skills gap a while back and not once did anyone suggest anything that crossed the state boundary. One person mentioned these technical high schools in Boston that produce grads with exactly the skills the market is needing. His idea was that Rhode Island needed to create these types of institutions. Not a bad idea, but I was struck that nobody thought about sending these Rhode Island employers who can’t find workers on the one hour drive to Boston to go hire some of those grads directly out of Boston’s high schools. Problem solved. And maybe while bringing some young, fresh blood into the state to boot.

Similarly, no one ever suggested that an unemployed person in Rhode Island might seek work out of state. Realistically, America has often solved unemployment problems through migration. People need to be willing to move to where the job opportunities are. In fact, if you look at the highly educated people who might say telling people to move in order to find work is evil awful, they are actually the most mobile people there are. Clearly the highly skilled see the value in pursuing opportunity through migration. We need to extend the same opportunity to those who are currently stuck in place.

Unemployability

A third problem is that a significant number of adults in this country are simply unemployable. If you’re a high school dropout, a drug user, etc. you are going to find it tough slogging to find work anywhere, regardless of skills required.

Watching the Chicagoland documentary and seeing what kids in these inner city neighborhoods face, a lack of machine tool or coding skills is far from the problem. Similar problems are now hitting rural and working class white communities where the economic tide has receded. Heroin, meth, etc. were things that just didn’t exist in my rural hometown growing up – but they sure do now.

These aren’t skill problems, they are human problems. And the answer isn’t simply job training. These problems are much, most more complex and they are incredibly difficult to solve. They need to be tackled by very different means than a job skills problem.

If you want more info that documents that there is no skills gap, google around and find plenty of economists crunching the numbers to show that’s the case. But I hope this gives you a sense of some of the trends that explain why there can be persistent unemployment with many job openings without recourse to a skills gap to explain it.

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Did Robots Save Pittsburgh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Does Calling Someplace a Metropolitan Area Make It So? by Chuck Eckenstahler

[ Today Chuck Eckenstahler looks back at the unfulfilled promises of Benton Harbor, MI being declared metropolitan - Aaron. ]

It’s called the “Benton Harbor Rule”, a hard fought change spearheaded by now Congressman Upton and local leaders to obtain metropolitan status in 1980.

Background

Back in the mid-1970′s, Berrien County Michigan, local governments and the Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce (predecessor to Cornerstone Chamber Services) identified the value of being recognized as “being metropolitan rather than rural”.

They identified the immediate opportunity to access as much as $1.8 million (1970’s dollars) of new federal and state funding that could only be obtained by “being metropolitan” for road improvements, bus transit, health and other social services. They estimated the designation would yield a $12-14 million dollar impact to the local economy.

To access these potential funds, they undertook a multi-year effort to change Federal Office of Management and Budget policy prohibiting Berrien County from ever being considered metropolitan.

Successful lobbing changed the rules for the 1980 Census creating, 9 new Metropolitan Areas like Benton Harbor-St. Joseph lacking a central city of 25,000 population in a concentrated urban area having a population of 50,000 or more, in a county having a population of 100,000 or more. This change modified the minimum sized “single city” criteria for determination of a “demographic dominate central city” requirement for federal metropolitan designation purposes.

Economic Development Advantages Identified

In the 1970’s being “metropolitan” meant more than increased state and federal money, according to the supporters. “Metropolitan” meant growth – increasing population and prosperity.

Business seeking to locate understood “metropolitan” to be a better place for new investment – both industry needing workers and retailers needing customers for success.

On the contrary, being a rural area meant the area didn’t quite make the grade for certain businesses especially the rapid growth of emerging fast food franchises and location of regional shopping malls.

The recruitment of these new businesses was a major goal of Chamber of Commerce visionaries who sponsored a nonprofit owned industrial park as a place for new industry to locate and create jobs. Back then there were no regional shopping malls and residents did a lot of their shopping in Kalamazoo, South Bend and Michigan City. It was believed the “metropolitan” designation would contribute to the redevelopment of Benton Harbor and the growth of communities throughout the county”.

Anyway, it just didn’t make sense that the home of several national firms such as, Auto Specialties, Leco Corporation, Tyler Refrigeration, Clark Equipment and Whirlpool would not reside in a growing metropolitan location.

Measuring the Impact of Metropolitan Designation

Today many wonder – was this successful? Did the change in federal policy truly make a difference?

Three decades later one measurement – population growth – can be used to gauge whether the legacy of this effort achieved results.

The adjoining table contains data for 8 of the 9 new MSA’s designated in 1980 due to the “Benton Harbor Rule”. The other has been merged into a consolidated MSA, a newer federal designation describing larger population centers, eliminating decade-to-decade data comparison.

This data reveals population of the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph MSA did not grow to the same extent as other comparative MSA’s created in 1980 – being a population loss of 8.4% compared to a 35.2% growth in population over the past three decades.

Where the average total comparative metropolitan growth rate in each decade ranged between 7-17%, the Benton Harbor St. Joseph MSA lost population twice between 1980 and 1990 and again between 2000 and 2010. The MSA only had marginal 0.7% population growth between 1980 and 1990.

What Happened

Obviously, the legacy of the authors of the Benton Harbor Rule, raises questions – why and what happened to the well intentioned efforts to stimulate growth.

The logical questions based on the data include – Why didn’t the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph MSA achieve similar growth? Shouldn’t the population have grown in a similar fashion as the other MSA’s – at least at the average rate? What social, political and economic impediments arose to limit population growth?

Many credit the demise of the auto industry, the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs and globalization of business as impediment to population growth. Others mention Michigan’s unfavorable business climate as a cause.

There certainly some truth in each statement. However closer to home, the more appropriate question might be – are there local impediments that hampered population growth?

Economic Geography and Realities of “Place”

The following offers a few thoughts on social and political barriers that might cause the lack of population growth:

Geographic Isolationism

The “Friday Night” social identity of Southwestern Michigan where small town high school sports define the community is a barrier to multi-community collaboration and cooperation. It limits the ability of local government and customer trade areas to form and strengthen economic clusters of businesses to maintain economic marketability necessary to sustain small local business that once supplied the small town community shopping experience.

Paralysis of Political Geography

In place of economic consideration which should inspire cooperation there is paralysis, the inability to shed “political boundary binders” that maintain the historic political geography that may, in some cases limit the scale of economics necessary for retail business sustainability and the delivery efficient government services.

Cognitive “Place” Realism

Without a doubt, economic markets of Berrien County today are different compared to 1975 when efforts to create a demographic dominate metropolitan central city composed of smaller individual communities was first initiated. Individual mental mapping of the actual area of influence of the Niles and Benton Harbor – St. Joseph shopping areas shows customers pay little attention in which local government the actual shopping is done. This mental cognitive mapping discloses three major retail markets, Benton Harbor – St. Joseph, Niles – connected to South Bend and Harbor Country – connected to Michigan City.

This pattern creates a rather isolated St. Joseph – Benton Harbor metropolitan market area surrounded by two (or three) market areas influenced by more dominate regional competitors having a population approximating 70,000 people with a somewhat lackluster future growth trend.

Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Polarization

Modern metropolitan community development theory has identified “social capital” as a key to economic prosperity in a global market. This is especially important for international businesses who recruit globally for management talent. Academic researchers have documented communities who richly embrace ethnic, cultural, religion and gender differences that increase social interaction among a wide spectrum of people tend to have increased population growth resulting in greater economic prosperity.

Academic research also discloses communities with “less tolerance for differences” lag behind both in community population growth and employment growth by firms serving global markets; leading to the question of adequacy of inclusionary and tolerance tendency of the metropolitan area.

Questionable Externally Communicated Metropolitan Identity

A metropolitan area identity, or its “good name”, is formed in people’s minds by repeated exposure – being the accumulated knowledge they acquire from varied sources (news media, marketing publicity, testimonials, etc.) and their personal experiences resulting in a positive, negative or neutral image. To often this image is one that leaders prefer not to address or address by issuing cheerleader statements or other auditory claims promising a personal experience that cannot be kept. A positive metropolitan identity and image is a message designed to attract attention and then follow with support services that fulfill the expected experiences.

The decision to visit or invest in a “place” is based on faith and trust because “customers” are purchasing an intangible personal asset. The logical question for any metropolitan area is – Do we offer a “good name” identity and image?

“Metropolitan” As a Determinant of Future Growth

Post-recession public policy has reinstated the importance of “metropolitan areas” in Michigan’s economic development policy.

Academics and political leaders extol the virtue of economic advantages of Michigan’s metropolitan areas. They are assembling new legislation and administrative policy to direct public and private investment to Michigan’s “core community” metropolitan areas.

From a public policy perspective this makes logical sense. Young people gravitate to metropolitan areas due to job opportunities metropolitan areas generate, the greatest number of new business formations occur in metropolitan areas, metropolitan areas tend to have higher per household incomes for their residents, and metropolitan areas attract higher value real estate investment that enhance the local government tax base.

A recent Brookings Institution analysis confirms this statement, where their research documents that in 47 of the 50 states, metropolitan areas generate the majority of the states’ gross economic output. They report in 2009, the St. Joseph – Benton Harbor Metropolitan area accounted for $5,620,000,000 (1.5%) of Michigan’s gross economic output (See: Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program – Metropolitan Area and the Next Economy and New Economy State Profiles).

Brookings advocates a “metro-led vision” for the future since they have “distinct assets and market strength to grow quality jobs and provide statewide prosperity”. They also note that metropolitan areas have:

1. In 30 states (including Michigan) the most innovative and educated workers,

3. Generate the majority of internationally exported goods and services, and

4. Host 89% of the working-aged people with post-secondary degrees.

All in all, Michigan’s strategy to define and focus government economic development attention to metropolitan “core communities” areas having greatest economic development impact is a reasonable and prudent “statewide” public policy. Michigan’s future hinges on performance of its metropolitan urban “core communities” hosting innovative firms, educated workers and critical infrastructure.

The Importance of “Geographic Place Identity”

Michigan’s newly forming metropolitan focused economic development public policy direction again draws attention on the importance of “metropolitan” and its impact on future growth of the Niles – Benton Harbor – St. Joseph Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Future community growth success is about understanding residents and, in the case of southwestern Michigan, to a lesser extent, seasonal residents and the occasional visitor. Population growth, especially well-educated workers is paramount to participation in the next wave of U.S. economic growth.

They say history repeats itself and again today – the term “metropolitan” once again communicates a sense of vitality and future prosperity.

In the eyes of the world a “metropolitan geographic brand identifier trumps a rural territorial identifier”.

This post originally appeared in Chuck Eckenstahler’s blog on February 27, 2014.

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

The Bentonville, Arkansas Effect by Eric McAfee

[ 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.

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Saving East Cleveland

Rust Wire pointed me at this video from mid-2012 called “Saving East Cleveland” that was created by residents of that community. Angie Schmitt was struck by the lack of outward blame residents have, and so was I. Before getting to the film, a few of my observations and takeaways.

First, as noted there is a singular lack of blaming of outside forces for the decline of East Cleveland. While Angie highlights the sprawl narrative, I think there’s a more important element at play: race. Clearly race relations played a huge role in how East Cleveland ended up in its current condition. Yet this video shows a remarkable lack of animus about that, even where it might be legitimate. I found this a profound rebuke of those who stereotype black America as walking around looking to play the race card.

I see the attitude and approach of the people in the video as grounded in a clear-eyed, realistic understanding of the fact that no one is coming to save East Cleveland (a separate municipality, not the east side of Cleveland). Though it appears to be not that far from the university, medical and cultural district of Cleveland, this isn’t a place that seems likely to attract the attention of local billionaires or regional bigwigs or state government. All those actors are focused on saving Cleveland itself, and as is commonly the case, only select districts of that. If there are any solutions for East Cleveland, they are going to have to come from inside the city.

There’s a standard Rust Belt narrative of loss. But what we see here, unlike with white flight suburbanites, is a keen sense of the loss of social capital as embodied by their grandparents’ generation and the values it held. They understand the pernicious effect this loss of social capital has had on their community. (Incidentally, we witnessing the exact same dynamic of loss playing out in many parts of white America today – I even see it in my own family).

What then is left to start turning around East Cleveland? Only one thing: self-improvement. I see the film maker as trying to recreate that lost social capital by calling people to accept responsibility for their lives and their community. The lists of accomplishments recited before the interviewees says it clearly: these are successful role models from East Cleveland. It is possible conduct yourself well and succeed as a man or woman here. This is what we need to be as a community. Step it up.

In a sense, while a tougher road, neighborhood improvement through internal development may be more beneficial for the residents. How is neighborhood “improvement” generally implemented in America today? By substituting new residents for the old (gentrification). This might improve real estate values, but I’m not sure it improves the lives of those who originally lived in the area, unless they managed to reap windfall real estate gains.

Instead of gentrifying the neighborhood, the film maker says we should in effect gentrify the people. This is evident in how they view as successes – not traitors – those from East Cleveland who made it in life but ended up leaving.

This documentary is 40 minutes so you may want to watch it on TV. Unlike the typical film of Detroit or wherever filmed by (often out of town) upscale whites, this is a film by and for the black residents of East Cleveland. Definitely worth a watch. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Pete Saunders also posted a take on it.

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

Telestrian Data Terminal

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A production of the Urbanophile, Telestrian is the fastest, easiest, and best way to access public data about cities and regions, with totally unique features like the ability to create thematic maps with no technical knowledge and easy to use place to place migration data. It's a great way to support the Urbanophile, but more importantly it can save you tons of time and deliver huge value and capabilities to you and your organization.

Try It For 30 Days Free!

About the Urbanophile

about

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

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Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.

 

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