Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Can Hipsters Save Providence?

Kate Nagle has a piece in GoLocalProv called “Can Hipsters Save Providence?” in which I am extensively quoted. To summarize my basic take on hipster driven revitalization:

  • It’s great that people are choosing these cities and urban neighborhoods. Who doesn’t want to see growth, better food and coffee, and more cultural offerings?
  • Channeling William Frey, there aren’t enough hipsters to go around to revitalize America’s cities. Having said that, some level of hipster neighborhood now exists almost everywhere.
  • Outside of a handful of locales like Brooklyn, the scale of hipsterdom is relatively small. Even Portland’s impressive central area is only a minority of what’s going on in that region.
  • Hipsters haven’t yet created much follow-on opportunities for the working class.
  • Portland’s culture of small makes it a great place to run an artisanal business. New England’s anti-business culture raises more barriers. If you want more hipster stuff, make it easier.
  • I think most hipsters in Providence specifically want to be there, so they aren’t that likely to flee to Detroit or some other hot spot. They have a passion and commitment to that place.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

More on Minneapolis-St. Paul and the North

Following up on last week’s post from Alex Schieferdecker about Minneapolis-St. Paul as the “Capital of the North” – an attempt to rebrand it to be in a region separate from the Midwest – I put together a few thoughts of my own that are posted over at New Geography. Here’s an excerpt:

There are two basic approaches cities are pursuing today. One is the regional capital approach of a Barcelona. (It would perhaps like to see itself as a national capital). The other is the global city approach of Chicago in which the city seeks to brand itself as a stand alone entity directly in the marketplace while actively divorcing itself from the region. The global city model seems more popular at present….If the Twin Cities are functionally a capital, this regional relationship will assert itself organically, however it seeks to brand itself.

Where the branding idea falls flat is in two areas….

Click through to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Can Minneapolis-St. Paul Rebrand Itself As the Capital of the North? by Alex Schieferdecker

[ There’s been some talk recently about MSP trying to disassociate itself from the Midwest and rebrand itself as the “Capital of the North”. I think there’s some interesting potential here, although the underlying thesis is classic Midwest: we’re already great but gosh-darnit people out there don’t know how great we are. That is, it views the problem as marketing. I believe in better marketing, but generally believe that most problems run deeper. Also, I think it plays off both sides by benchmarking against the Rust Belt while saying you’re not part of it. If you’re not part of the Midwest, benchmark against a peer like Seattle-Tacoma. Do that and the performance doesn’t look nearly as standout.

In any case, local Alex Schieferdecker likes the idea of the North and put a lot of thought into various aspects it, including hitting on some of the above. He wrote this piece for Streets.MN with this thoughts, which he graciously gave me permission to repost – Aaron. ]

MIN-northIn November, I joined an overflow crowd at the Walker Arts Center to hear a panel discussion entitled Midwest? The Past, Present, and Future of Minnesota’s Identity. The discussion stemmed from common questions of identity, and proposed that Minnesota and the Twin Cities secede from the “Midwest” and claim ownership of a new region: the North. If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably heard about this, perhaps from the Star Tribune’s original write-up. There are some powerful people behind the movement. It’s the brainchild of Eric Dayton, son of the governor and owner of The Bachelor Farmer restaurant and the Askov Finlayson clothing store.

Recently, the idea has experienced another surge of media interest. Brian Martucci, The Line‘s Innovation and Jobs News Editor, wrote an article that catalogs piecemeal some of the projects and movements that are transforming the Minneapolis-Saint Paul cityscape. A day later, The Wall Street Journal (of all newspapers), published a different take by Christina Brinkley, their fashion and style columnist.

It’s a fascinating experience to read these two commentaries side by side. Martucci writes from the perspective of someone who lives here, and his focus is firmly on the built environment. As is evident to any resident, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are undergoing a breakneck physical transformation, with further changes hurtling down the pipeline. Meanwhile from New York, Brinkley is interested in goods. Red Wing shoes, Faribault wool, Duluth packs, and other ‘Made in Minnesota’ products are reportedly—this writer wouldn’t know, he cannot afford them—in vogue, thanks in part to their decades-old, blue collar, lumberjack bona fides. At the confluence of both of these trends, both writers found Eric Dayton and his determination that we live in the ‘North’, and that Minneapolis-Saint Paul should assert its place as the capital of this new region.

The Idea of North

I love the idea of “North.” I am a New York native. I came to Minnesota for college, studied geography and have lived here in the short period since. I have flown over Minnesota and I have also called it home. I have an unshakable certainty that Minnesota is deeply underrated, especially among people like myself. After the event at the Walker in November, I convened a Facebook focus group of high school friends and asked them what came to mind when they imagined Minnesota. I heard back—

The Vikings—

Adrian Peterson—

Outdoorsy stuff when it’s not cold—

You can go to the movies or marry your high school sweetheart or get cold in Minnesota—

We’ve all heard something to the same effect. Minnesota is a frozen tundra populated by mostly second rate football players and provincial people. No theater. No bikes. No beer. We barely get credit for being an objectively incredible sports town. I wholeheartedly blame our association with the Midwest for this. We are shoehorned into a familiar “flyover state” template and the thermostat is turned down. At least Ohio gets to choose the president.

Why yoke our region to images of yokels? There’s hardly a consensus that we’re part of the Midwest anyway. Meanwhile, the commonly used “Upper Midwest” is the unsweetened oatmeal of place names, hardly worth insisting on.

In “North,” we would own an identity that is simple, evocative, and accurate. It is miles beyond what we have now.

mayday2

Keep Minnesota weird

Yet is this reason enough? It may be that most Minnesotans feel the same way and that the roots are already laid for a reinvention. The capacity crowd at the Walker indicated that many are ready to jump on board. But the success of the North movement relies on both broad and fervent support. To harness both, advocates need to make a compelling argument that embracing our Northern identity is not just a good idea because it feels better than before, but because there is an economic and cultural imperative toward doing so.

Do We Really Have a Place-Branding Problem?

It’s not clear that the Twin Cities and our hinterland are struggling because of our attachment to the boring Midwest and our reputation as the American manifestation of Hoth.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is punching well above its weight economically. The metro unemployment rate is the lowest of any large American city, we have high wages, and a modest cost of living. We have the fifth most Fortune 500 companies and the most per capita of American metropolitan areas. We’re not bad for small businesses either. As a result of the MSP economic engine, the state of Minnesota is also doing relatively well. Our state’s unemployment rate is the nation’s fifth lowest and our economy is growing at a reasonably strong rate.

Of course, the problem here is that we’re dealing with a counterfactual. If Minneapolis-Saint Paul had a stronger identity, would we see the results in a better economy?

It’s nearly impossible to prove, but with basic data we can make a few back-of-the-envelope observations that may bolster that claim. We know that cities and regions with more human capital have a strong correlation with economic strength. There is some evidence that suggests we could do better at attracting that talent. Data from City Observatory‘s ‘Young and Restless’ Report shows that the Twin Cities boasts one of the better educated cohorts of young people in the country. Given our strong economic position and wealth of colleges and universities this is not surprising. But despite an increase in the number of young and educated in the city and the metro area, we lag behind some of our national rivals in growing these numbers in a way that seems at odds with what our economic and educational attractiveness would predict.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul ranks tenth in young and educated adults who live in the city, but fourteenth in terms of real growth, and twenty ninth in percentage terms. Denver is an easy comparison. The Mile High City (that’s their tourist slogan too—straight, to the point, and in sync with how outsiders think of the city) had just over 2000 more young and educated adults than MSP in the year 2000. Now the gap is over 6000. That’s why Denver got the star treatment from the New York Times in this article that Facebook’s algorithm has been advertising to me for the past three months.

Baltimore is the nation’s biggest turnaround story, having doubled the young and educated population of the city from 2000 to 2010, surpassing MSP in the meantime. Baltimore doesn’t have a brilliant identity (The Charm City), but it offers a relatively low cost of living, dramatic cityscape improvements, powerful educational institutions, and an enviable position in the undoubtedly cool Northeast megalopolis (with the ability to commute to DC). MSP can boast three of the four, but not the East Coast brand.

It’s plausible to infer that Baltimore’s low cost, urban and high ed assets, and unique position have helped it draw in a young, educated crowd, but that its lack of a compelling identity has contributed to the lack of attachment to it that residents feel.

The Branding Theory

So the theory as a whole goes like this:

We are mired in a classic economic morass of having a product that people cannot distinguish from other substitutes. Those substitutes are regional railroad and rust-belt towns like Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. The image of these cities is cold, boring, and downtrodden. If we want Minneapolis-Saint Paul to attract people, especially people who have the agency to move to a place of their choosing, what outsiders think of us matters. It is not enough to simply have a superior product. We want to be competing globally as a region and nationally with places like Baltimore and Denver, cities near our size that are buoyed by capturing a greater share of the flood of young human capital. To better compete, we need to celebrate our strengths, turn our weaknesses into opportunities, and emphasize what makes us unique.

guthrie

Minneapolis at its most dramatic

The third rail to this argument is the (in)famous University of Toronto geographer and public intellectual Richard Florida. His work, first laid out in his astonishingly influential 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is referenced in the original Star Tribune article, and was also brought up at the Walker discussion. Florida essentially takes the human capital economic theory and identifies certain groups—like scientists, engineers, gays, and bohemians—who are “creatives”, and thus (more) important to urban economic vitality. Creative class theory offers policy prescriptions that are extremely appealing to many urbanites, and a beguiling foundation for the Northern argument. There are two problems with it. The first is that Florida’s work, while popular with policy makers and media, is extremely controversial among academics, and has been thoroughly criticized. Second, the creative class is a deeply exclusionary group. While I enjoy belonging to the demographic being fêted by city officials, the identity of our cities and our region must belong to all, not just people like me.

This perspective is biased in another way, too. When I ran this article past a friend of mine who is originally from Wisconsin, he called me out on my own coastal bias. In writing extensively on how to make Minnesota attractive to outsiders, I had left unsaid what championing the North might say to those who already live here. This was an embarrassing omission. 29,000 young adults leave Minnesota to attend schools out of state (21,000 come in) and far fewer return. Overall, Minnesota suffers a net loss of residents to domestic migration. Even to those who live here, the North’s image could use burnishing.

Culture is the Key

That’s why the Northerners must make a cultural argument as well.

There’s a lot of low hanging fruit here. Minnesota is the state of hockey (despite the disappointments wrought by our local professional team). We supply the US Olympic Team’s curlers. We host the Loppet, a pond hockey championship, and the best attended Red Bull Crashed Ice event. Snowmobile manufactures Polaris and Arctic Cat are Minnesota-based. We’re avid ice anglers, an activity that is the subject of ridicule in most of America. (Full disclosure: I don’t really get it either.) There is no state in the union that so thoroughly embraces the full spectrum of winter activity. Meanwhile, in the summer, Saint Paul hosts the Minnesota State Fair, which can claim the highest daily attendance in the nation. If any event celebrates the spectrum of what it means to be a Northerner, it’s this.

That’s what you put in a 30 second tourism television spot. But being from the North can mean more than just winter activities. Cabin culture is something that seems a uniquely Northern phenomenon. Minnesota has one of the highest rates of second homes among US states (5.1% of the total dwellings); fifth if you remove sparsely populated states. Wisconsin and Michigan have similarly high rates of vacation homes, while Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have the highest percentages nationwide. Northern forests are a transcendent cultural asset.

Historically, the North was settled by Germans and Scandinavians, and their legacy is evident in a way that is easy to spot. Perhaps as a result, our region differs linguistically, which is a powerful source of identity. The Minnesota accent is distinct and a cultural hallmark of the region, just as the drawl defines the American south. Some of our words are different too. Northerners play Duck, Duck, Grey Duck and eat hot dish. (NOT grape salad, remember that now.) And if we’re talking about the legacies of the past, the new North could properly recognize the American Indian history of the region, something that only the Southwest and Pacific Northwest seem to do in any measure.

Our region is also different politically, especially given recent elections in which our neighbors have become Republican territory while Minnesota has remained steadfastly progressive. But this is an element of Northern identity that is problematic, not least because it threatens to excommunicate about half of those whom we would welcome into our tent. Another concern is that political winds are mercurial. Not long ago Minnesota was governed by a Republican and represented by a Republican senator, while Wisconsin was more proudly liberal. Any Northern identity must be durable enough to withstand political shifts.

The Economic Argument

But what do we get from affirming these cultural quirks as the bedrock of an identity distinct from the Midwest? I think a few things.

One, we bolster the value of Minnesotan goods. The ‘North’ movement has been criticized as an elaborate branding campaign by Dayton on behalf of his businesses. Obviously I believe it is and ought to be much more than that. But that does not mean that spreading and supporting Minnesota brands cannot be one of the goals of the campaign. If Minnesota-made boots, sweaters, blankets, and more become fashionable, than Minnesota itself benefits. In the Star Tribune article, Thomas Fischer, dean of the College of Design at the U of M, admits that the region has a “slightly hick” reputation. Northern goods can pave the way for greater respect for Minnesota, the Twin Cities, and this region’s lifestyle.

Second, we better control our own narrative. Fargo is a wonderful movie, but the impact it has had on Minnesota’s image is hard to understate. At Macalester (where I went to college), the movie is one of the few reference points many new students have when relating to their new home. It’s a wonder anyone actually attends. Prairie Home Companion is another revered Minnesotan cultural export that does the state few favors in the population at large. I love it too, but it benefits substantially from context (and repeated listening). ‘North’ can be that context. ‘North’ can trigger the connections between not just Fargo and PHC, but on to other strengths as well. There’s a reason that no amount of Hollywood violence set in New York can diminish that city’s glamour. The context is too strong. Yet Minnesota is best known by just a few cultural touchstones.

Third and finally, emphasizing a Northern culture also includes our rural hinterland. I live in the Twin Cities, as do those who have launched this campaign. At the discussion at the Walker, there was a tension in defining the North; who is a part of it, and who is not? This does not need to be centrally planned; as with all of our nation’s regions, membership is largely down to self-identification. But the North’s borders will not extend beyond I-494 if Minneapolis-Saint Paul dictates the entire platform. There is no dispute that MSP is the economic and cultural capital of the region. There is no dispute that becoming more attractive to young, college educated, creative professionals (near and far) is primarily an urban concern. But rural areas demand respect and deserve it, given that much of the Northern identity we’re peddling is derived from and preserved by them.

minnesotawsj

The Wall Street Journal’s map of Minnesota’s offerings

A Northern Agenda

In one sense, there’s not a lot that really needs changing. The North already exists; it’s not something we need to invent, only identify. This is already well-covered ground. Look no further than The Line or the WSJ articles for a detailed survey of how Minnesota and Minneapolis-Saint Paul are distinct from other Midwestern places, better than other Midwestern places (would we be here if we didn’t believe that on some level?), and uniquely represent what it means to be a Northern region and city. At the Walker, one point of discussion was how to turn our biting winter into a positive. That’s something that Northerners already do. From the Winter Carnival, to the Holidazzle Parade/Village, to Crashed Ice there is plenty to do in wintertime. What’s left for us to do is to be proud of our region’s characteristics (in this case, the climate) and to sell them.

But in another sense, it would be a missed opportunity to think of North as simply a marketing campaign. North could (should) be as much about placemaking as place branding. This may be a chance to set the course of the region in a deliberate way. The recent media coverage illustrates these dual objectives, because both Brinkley and Martucci capture important parts of what North is about. The aim is to reinvent the image of our cities and our region—and reinvent the cities and the region themselves.

If we want it to be—this could be a big undertaking.

Marketing Ourselves

One thing we could get right immediately is the marketing. We should learn from Denver, whose municipal logo and tourism logo both emphasize the skyline of a major metropolis, the rocky mountain backdrop, and the same evocative nickname: ‘The Mile High City’. On the other hand, Minneapolis, our region’s most dynamic hub and economic powerhouse has an awful logo that comes in ballpoint-pen-blue and says absolutely nothing meaningful about the city. Meet Minneapolis has a nice logo, but the tagline; “City By Nature” falls flat. It’s certainly not wrong, our parks are one of the absolute highlights of the cities, but it doesn’t play any of the chords that outsiders have when it comes to Minneapolis. “The Capital of the North” is a bold statement of the city’s prominence, and one that also embraces the region’s climate and culture. It would serve well as both the city’s nickname and tourist slogan, or in a parallel universe, the slogan of a combined MSP tourism agency. As for a logo, there are a number of possible starting points. But my vote is for the North Stars’ iconic mark, which could easily be converted from an “N” to an “M”. The Minnesota/Northern state/region motto and team namesake L‘Etoile du Nord is referenced brilliantly here, and I love the dual meaning that comes from the mapping convention of using a star to represent a capital city.

There’s also a conversation to be had about Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s symbols. Seattle has the Space Needle, St. Louis has the Gateway Arch, Chicago has the Willis Tower, and so on. It’s certainly not necessary to have a single monolith somewhere, but it’s hard to think of an iconic image of MSP that outsiders might have. Unless MSP hosts the Olympics (which we might want to consider, we wouldn’t have to build much) or the World’s Fair, we’re unlikely to throw a ridiculous amounts of money at a massive landmark project in the future. Plus, we’re already doing it. The new Downtown East stadium will soon be the most well-known building in the cities, beating out four important Minneapolis works by Pritzker Prize winning architects, two classical marvels in Saint Paul, and a sculpture of a utensil that will soon be usurped on all the postcards. That’s not the end of the world. The stadium may well look pretty tremendous. It might also change the default-picture-taking-place from that pedestrian bridge over 35W to the Cedar Avenue bridge that crosses over the light rail, which would put the green line in the foreground.

The renewed focus on Downtown East offers some unique chances to create a unique, iconic place. One interesting urban feature that will come from the downtown east redevelopment is Wells Fargo’s rooftop signage that will shine down on the Commons park. Here’s to hoping that Wells Fargo does something interesting with their branding. The Twin Cities already have a plethora of memorable advertising signs, but none that really stand out as a regional symbol. If the city asked to be able to take over a rooftop space, they could do something much more interesting. As placemaking ideas go, signs are ridiculously cheap.

There are other major projects going on that will be local landmarks. The Water Works park would be a tremendous addition to the river, which remains our best (and not entirely fully realized) asset. The reconstruction of Nicollet Mall is another large scale project, and one that’s much further along in the planning and funding. The city has repeatedly indicated their desire to see the mall become the region’s “main street”. On February 3rd, the city issued a call for artists for four large scale projects along the street. Among the projects, the city would like to see an artist “create a large-scale iconic artwork” on the mall. Whatever shape this takes will probably come down to the mind of a mad genius, but the selection process ought to consider work that is derivative our our city and region.

The key date for this marketing push is February 4th, 2018. That’s the day when over 100 million Americans will tune in to watch two teams—neither of whom is likely to be the Vikings—contest Super Bowl LII. For the week leading up to this event, the nation’s sports media will be in the cities, making jokes about the weather. During the game, NBC will be leading into the play with blimp shots and stock footage. It’s easy to overstate the effect of events like these; politicians do it repeatedly. But the Super Bowl’s visibility and timing make it a natural checkpoint in any branding initiative. The bid committee reportedly won the NFL owners over with their plans to embrace winter. Hopefully that does not just mean hanging out in the MoA. If the organizers are true to their word, the Super Bowl will be the perfect opportunity to show the largest possible audience what living in the North is all about.

redbullcrashedice

A new image of Northern cool

Growing the Region Through Tolerance

Altering the image of the region is one project. Altering the region itself is another. The North is worth distinguishing and promoting. But it is certainly worth working to change and improve. It seems as though every month brings new construction projects that will transform the Twin Cities into a more dense, livable, and remarkable place. Yet there is still a parking lot across from the Warehouse District light rail station and the downtown Saint Paul Macy’s still casts a pall over the surrounding sidewalks. The real estate market is strong, but not yet strong enough to fill all of the available holes. Growth is still an imperative. Meanwhile the battles over transportation investments, which could bind the cities, state, and region closer together, instead divide them along political lines.

Is there an apolitical, Northern resolution to these issues? Perhaps not, but in building a Northern identity, we could make choices about our culture that would help us navigate these storms. In particular, I’d urge a reflection on what ‘Minnesota Northern Nice’ could mean.

All sides of every issue do not need to agree on the particulars, but what they should do instead is make a commitment to a process of compromise and conciliation. Many Minnesotans are descended from Scandinavians, who have a long political tradition of seeking consensus. In an increasingly polarized America, politicians and those promoting the idea of a Northern identity should all agree to work to make Minnesota an exception that can serve as a model. We already can count on voter turnout and civic engagement that rank among the highest in the nation. All sides should at minimum find common ground in bolstering the ownership that all Northerners feel in their society through a political process that takes inspiration from our Nordic cousins. Initiatives like solving the achievement gap and reducing our pernicious residential segregation (linked issues that have been addressed by both parties) would be a powerful start.

Northern identity should also influence our perspective of who becomes a Minnesotan. The state loses more people each year to other states than it takes in. However, Minnesota is still adding newcomers, thanks to international immigration. Again, Scandinavian nations should provide a Northern model. While these nations are more restrictive towards immigration than the United States, they accept high numbers of refugees. This tradition already exists in the state, and it should become a point of policy emphasis. As Minnesota ages, it will become increasingly crucial to bring people to the state from wherever we can; not just the educated 20-somethings covered above. Other regions will have a similar idea, but the North can gain an advantage by creating resettlement policy in the Scandinavian image that would attract those seeking to start a new life in this country. Meanwhile, the North would set in stone a welcoming and helpful culture that eases the transition for international migrants. We have the affluence, the space, and the culture to adopt such a policy.

Assessing how Minnesota markets itself, inside and out, is easy. Building and shaping our landscape and culture in this new image is profoundly difficult. But small steps count too, and we should be bold in setting far reaching goals for the city and the region. If there’s a thread that runs through the North campaign, it’s about taking charge of our own story. As the Midwest, we’re on the fringe of a large, flat, and forgettable mass. As North, we’re at the center of a region with its own story to tell and our own story to write.

minneapolis sunset

Keep Minnesota awesome

Yes, I Know This Is Long…

At one point, this article was conceived as a personal reaction to an issue that struck a chord. It ballooned, in part because everywhere I looked, I found more to discuss. The prospect of changing an entire geographic identity is a daunting one. I believe it can be done, and moreover, I believe there’s a compelling case to be made that it should be done.

That said, I have just one perspective. This article attempts to approach from multiple angles, but there is only one that this writer can truthfully inhabit. I expect to hear about those I shortchanged in the comments.

I have some reservations about the Northern idea. Would it be possible to maintain MSP’s exceptional gap between wages and cost of living if the cities became more popular? New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg once referred to Manhattan as a luxury product, and luxury goods behave differently in economic theory. While comparisons between the Twin Cities and Manhattan are ludicrous, it’s possible to envision the Twin Cities as losing their budget option appeal if the market properly valued (or overestimated) our assets. There’s surely a benefit for those of us who are here now in living in a place that is underrated.

Or might the concept of North simply divide, instead of unite? Would we end up with Team Midwest vs. Team North?

And of course, there’s the real possibility that the idea just never gains momentum. This is the eventuality I can do the most about, and this article’s main contribution may simply be to keep the idea of North in the spotlight. But beyond that, I’d love to add to the debate about the idea. There is not necessarily a right or a wrong answer, nor may there be disagreement as to whether there’s a solution at all. But I think in this time of change, the discussion is worth having.

This post originally appeared in Streets.MN on February 12, 2015.

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Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Real Scenes: New York

Here’s another one of those Resident Advisor documentaries about the electronic music scenes in various cities. This one features New York. And like the others, it’s as much as about the culture of the place (or at least certain aspects of it), as music itself. In this particular episode, we’re treated to a long list of complaints about gentrification (and plenty of F-bombs I should warn you). Whether you agree with it or not – and there’s a lot to disagree with – it gives a window into how some people see the world.

It also appears to me that if you’re really into electronic dance music, you’d be better off in Berlin, Detroit, or Jo’burg than New York or Paris, where rising rents are putting a lot of pressure on the edgy underground scene.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

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Topics: Arts and Culture, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Rahm’s Runoff

Rahm Emanuel is heading to a runoff in his bid for re-election as Chicago mayor. I discuss the matter in my latest piece over at City Journal. In short, while Emanuel has done himself no favor with his “Rahmses” style and unapologetic catering to the upscale Chicago, much of the dissatisfaction with him comes from a denial that the bill for past decisions is finally coming due.

Here’s an excerpt:

The dynamic Emanuel seemed just what the flagging city needed. His dead-fish-mailing, F-bomb-dropping style seemed perfectly in tune with hardboiled Chicago sensibilities. He started fast, unleashing a blizzard of initiatives and announcements that boosted the morale of the city’s establishment. And four years on, Chicago has hit its stride in many ways. In November, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that jobs in the greater downtown area had reached an all-time high. The city has enjoyed a tourist boom, drawing over 50 million visitors last year, and several new hotels are expected to open. Chicago’s downtown tech scene has seen strong growth. Thousands of new apartments are going up in downtown every year.

Chicago is also uniquely burdened among major American cities by its twin deficits. Both the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are in dire financial condition. Illinois’s unfunded pension liability stands at $111 billion. It owes another $56 billion in unfunded retiree health-care obligations. Chicago itself faces $35 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The total liability for all local government obligations adds up to as much as $83,000 per household. This flow of red ink can’t be staunched with simple “belt tightening.” One wonders if Emanuel understood the full extent of the financial hole when he sought the mayor’s office.

It’s tempting to pin the blame for Emanuel’s travails on hubris, and he has committed his share of unforced errors. He manages the local media with Washington-style spin control. He’s also shown a lack of regard for the optics of leadership. Daley projected a South Side “neighborhood guy” persona even while cozying up to the Loop business class. By contrast, Emanuel seems unconcerned about coming across as an elitist. His schedule is full of meetings with wealthy donors. Over half of his top donors benefit in some way from city largesse. Emanuel built a fancy selective-admission school named after President Obama on the white and wealthy North Side while closing 50 public schools in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

Click through for the whole thing.

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Creating Fertile Soil For Innovation

I was privileged to give the opening keynote at Governing Magazine’s Summit on Performance and Innovation in Louisville last week. Not only was it great to get to speak there in its own right, it’s particularly special for me because Louisville is my hometown.

My talk was on innovation, the imperative for innovation today, the barriers to innovation, and how to create fertile soil for innovation to flourish. The video is embedded below, but if it doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube.

Friday, January 30th, 2015

Is Detroit Open For Business?

My latest piece is online in the latest issue of City Journal. It’s about the blowback people and firms ranging from Shinola to Hantz Farms have gotten when trying to bring what Detroit desperately needs to rebuild, namely investment. Here’s an excerpt:

Consider Shinola, a luxury-goods start-up that employs more than 250 people in Detroit, many engaged in the manufacturing of bicycles, leather goods, and watches. The firm has opened boutiques in New York and London and is running multipage ads in upscale magazines, boasting of its Detroit connection. But not everybody sees Shinola as a Detroit success story. “Shinola is using my city as its shill, pushing a manufactured, outdated and unrealistic ideal of America,” wrote Detroit native John Moy on Four Pins, a fashion website. He complains about Shinola’s out-of-town financial backers and its use of parts made elsewhere. When Shinola installed four outdoor city clocks, someone tagged them with graffiti.

What these and other incidents reveal is an “it’s our city” mind-set among locals deeply hostile to and suspicious of outsiders—and of outside investment. “Detroit is the only town in America where misery hates company, or at least distrusts it,” wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson about the Shinola controversy. Detroiters, he notes, view enterprising newcomers as “mere poseurs, parasites feeding off a hardscrabble heritage to which they lack any legitimate claim.”

I note that some of this is understandable emotionally, but the reality is that if Detroit wants to improve, that means more people and investment from the outside, and those people are going to demand a seat at the table too. Click through to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

New York’s Little Blizzard That Couldn’t

The “storm of the century” hit New England hard but was a bust in New York. I went out and surveyed the realm yesterday morning and filed at story over at City Journal:

New York’s “storm of the century” turned out to be a bust. Rather than the predicted 30-inch “snowpocalypse,” only eight to 10 inches hit most of the city. That’s not to say that it had no effect. It happened to be the perfect amount of snow needed to turn Central Park gorgeous. By 10 o’clock, park streets and paths had already been plowed, and joggers, kids with sleds, and even skiers were out enjoying the winter wonderland. With the streets mostly empty, the morning was a welcome respite from traffic noise, bicycle rickshaws—and bikes, period, as cyclists appeared to be skipping the festivities. I missed the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages, however—a sad preview of what awaits if Mayor de Blasio succeeds in his quest to ban carriage rides.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Replay: A Tale of Two Blizzards

[ With the New York portion of the widely touted blizzard turning out to be a bust, I thought I’d dust off this 2009 piece I did for New Geography on cities, blizzards, and what the response to them says about the urban culture – Aaron. ]

January 1979 saw one of the worst blizzards in city history hit Chicago, dumping 20 inches of snow, closing O’Hare airport for 46 hours, and paralyzing traffic in the city for days. Despite the record snowfall, the city’s ineffectual response was widely credited for the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic in his re-election bid, leading to Jane Bryne becoming the city’s first female mayor.

In January 1978, a similar blizzard had struck the city of Indianapolis, also burying the city in a record 20 inches of snow. Mayor Bill Hudnut stayed awake nearly two days straight, coordinating the response and frequently updating the city on the snow fighting efforts through numerous media appearances. Nevertheless, the airport closed and it was several days before even major streets were passable. But when it was all over, Hudnut emerged a folk hero and went on to become arguably the most popular mayor in city history, serving four terms before voluntarily stepping aside.

While major snow is much less frequent in Indianapolis than Chicago, and Hudnut’s response certainly bettered Bilandic’s, these twin blizzards illustrate a powerful difference in citizen expectations between these two cities, reflecting two of the broad approaches to urban service provision in America today.

People in Chicago expect and demand high quality public services. Chicago is the “City that Works”, and woe be to the mayor when it doesn’t. That’s why every mayor since Bilandic has treated snow clearance like a military operation, deploying a division of armored snow trucks to assault the elements at the merest hint of a flake, often leaving more salt than snow in their wake. If Chicagoans pay relatively higher taxes than the rest of the country, at least its citizens know that they are getting something for their money, whether it be snow clearance, garbage collection, street lighting, landscaped boulevards, or bike lanes.

In Indianapolis, by contrast, public services are not the main concern. People gripe if snow is not cleared, but are not outraged. No Indianapolis mayor ever lost his job for failing to deliver good services. Rather, taxes have always been the primary issue. Nothing illustrates this better than the most recent mayoral election. Buoyed by an emerging demographic super-majority, a large campaign war chest, and the support of almost every establishment figure of both parties, Mayor Bart Peterson confidently raised city income taxes by 0.65 percentage points shortly on the heels of a major property tax jump. In the fall, however, he lost his re-election bid to political neophyte Greg Ballard, who ran on a taxpayers first platform. Ballard won without significant backing from his own Republican party, supported only by a collection of grass roots activists, bloggers, and his own relentless door-knocking campaign.

The divergent citizen and policy preferences of both cities continue to the present, amply illustrated by this very winter. Mayor Daley, facing a recession-induced budget gap, decided to save money by ordering that residential streets not be cleared by workers clocking overtime. Citizen unhappiness over the state of the streets during December snows led even the widely popular Daley to backtrack on this experiment, reverting to the traditional all out assault for the balance of winter.

In Indianapolis, after 12.5 inches blanketed the city this January, crews took several days to clear its snow routes and, as per its standard operating procedure, did not plow residential streets at all. The local media carried tales of people’s laments, but ultimately the city government knows that the response to the snow will be forgotten soon after it melts. Higher tax bills, by contrast, are long remembered. In an inverse situation to Chicago, people in Indianapolis sleep at night knowing that, if services haven’t been all that great, they at least have more money in their pockets.

While both cities have long seemed happy pursuing their respective courses, storm clouds are gathering over both strategic models of operation.

Backing down from a high service stance in government is almost impossible. Government spending only ever seems to go one way. Faced with that logic, and the clear expectations of its citizens, Chicago in effect decided to double down. With the much celebrated resurgence of urbanism, Chicago put its chips on a soaring Loop economy driven by an emerging status as one of the top global cities, a real estate boom, and a series of tax and fee increases. It embarked on a civic transformation epitomized by community showplaces like Millennium Park, miles of top quality streetscape improvements, a new terminal at Midway Airport and the start of a multi-billion dollar O’Hare modernization, one of the nation’s best bicycling infrastructures, and perhaps most ambitiously, a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

This model is increasingly showing signs of strain, however. Many taxes and fees, including the nation’s highest sales tax at 10.25%, appear to be close to maxed out. The real estate crunch hit hard at Chicago’s transfer tax revenue, another key source of city funds. This, in combination with a weak economy, has hammered the city’s budget, leaving Daley with tough, often unpopular choices to make. The CTA recently raised fares. City parking meter rates will be quadrupling under a privatization plan recently signed, hopefully plugging operating budget holes – something Daley had previously resisted. As with New York City, Chicago may be faced with the cold reality of both service cuts and tax increases.

More importantly, as with the dot-com bubble before it, there are real questions as to whether the financial and real estate driven economy that fueled Chicago’s boom will come back in full force any time soon. In the meantime, the economy and cost of living in the city are squeezing the middle class harder by the day, and despite perhaps America’s biggest condo boom, the city’s population is slowly shrinking. All this leaves Mayor Daley, although still very popular, with perhaps the toughest leadership challenge of his tenure.

Meanwhile Indianapolis faces problems of its own. It too has budget challenges, just as years of deferred investment are finally catching up with the city. Indianapolis has a $900 million unfunded backlog of curb and sidewalk repairs alone. It is the 13th largest municipality in America, but has the 99th largest transit system. And, more troubling, the city now finds itself outflanked by its own suburbs.

At one time Indianapolis could comfortably decide to purchase bronze-level services while other cities paid more for gold. But now its own suburbs are offering silver, and at a lower price point in taxes than the city is selling bronze. Many of its suburbs today not only have better schools and safer streets than the central city, they feature fully professional fire departments, large park acreage, lavishly landscaped parkways exceeding city standards, and even better snow removal. In the recent storm, upscale north suburban Carmel finished plowing its cul-de-sacs before Indianapolis finished its main arteries. When people can pay less and get more just by moving to the collar counties, that’s what they do. Tens of thousands of people have left the merged central city-county in recent years. Only a large influx of the foreign born has kept Indianapolis from losing population.

The current economy is exposing the long term structural weaknesses of both civic strategies. Chicago and Indianapolis show that both higher service and lower service models face big challenges and that neither approach represents a safe harbor in the current economic storm.

This post originally ran on February 14, 2009 at New Geography.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Bicycles and Race in Portland by Sean Benesh

[ Portland resident Sean Benesh recently put out a book about a book called The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling. It’s targeted at an audience who may not (yet) get this cycling in the city thing and wants to know more. There are some parts that are even relevant to the expert, however, including a chapter on the intersection of bicycling and gentrification. You may recall that Portland had some debates about this in the recent past. Sean wrote a chapter about this for the book and I’m pleased to be able to publish a condensed version here. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that Sean and I have a publishing project we’re doing together, but I think you’ll agree this piece stands on its own merits – Aaron. ]

The flashpoint for the gentrification conversation along Portland’s North Williams revolves around the bicycle. The cultural appetite for what the creative class likes and enjoys is in stark contrast to that of the African-American community. “North Williams Avenue wasn’t hip back in the late 1970s. There was no Tasty n Sons. No Ristretto Roasters. No 5th Quadrant. Back then, it was the heart of the African American community. It was wonderfully colorful and gritty.” As the black community saw their own businesses close down through economic disinvestment, they weren’t replaced with new businesses that they regarded as desirable. In the several hours I spent today at Ristretto I have seen roughly a hundred patrons come in and go out, plus others sitting outside on the patios of one of several nearby restaurants. Only three were African-American. As I mentioned earlier, the buildings that surround this coffee shop are home to many African-American families. And yet these new businesses do not appeal to their cultural tastes.

This all came to a head over a road project to reconfigure North Williams and Vancouver Avenue. Both are one-way roads a block apart that carry a high volume of bicycle traffic. Vancouver’s southbound traffic flows carry cyclists towards the Lloyd Center and downtown Portland and so sees its heaviest usage in the mornings. Williams on the other hand carries northbound traffic away from the city center which means its highest use is in the afternoons and evenings when bicycle commuters are heading away from the city center. But the focal point of all of this controversy is specifically tied to North Williams Avenue because this is where most of the new businesses are coming in.

A New York Times article featured this stretch of road including one of the business owners who opened up the beloved Hopworks BikeBar. “North Williams Avenue [is] one of the most-used commuter cycling corridors in a city already mad for all things two-wheeled. Some 3,000 riders a day pass by Mr. Ettinger’s new brewpub, which he calls the Hopworks BikeBar. It has racks for 75 bicycles and free locks, to-go entrees that fit in bicycle water bottle cages, and dozens of handmade bicycle frames suspended over the bar areas. Portland is nationally recognized as a leader in the movement to create bicycle-friendly cities.” Other national newspapers and magazines have also picked up on all of the buzz happening along North Williams. In Via Magazine, Liz Crain writes, “With 3,000 commuters pedaling it every day, North Williams Avenue is Portland’s premier bike corridor. Visitors, too, find plenty worth braking for on two blocks of this arterial, including two James Beard Award–nominated chef-owned restaurants and a slew of hip shops and cafés.” Sunset Magazine has several features on North Williams including: “Go green on Portland’s North Williams Avenue: Enjoy a low-key urban vibe thanks to yoga studios, indie shops, and cafes.”

With images of happy (white) hipsters pedaling bicycles, doing yoga, and eating gourmet food, the nation is given a taste of inner N/NE Portland that is not reflective of the reality of the neighborhood nor the tension surrounding gentrification. These magazines showcase things to see, do, and eat along North Williams with helpful hints like, “Scene: A low-key urban vibe, courtesy of yoga studios and green indie shops and cafes … Dress code: waterproof jacket and jeans with right leg rolled up … Native chic: A waterproof Lemolo bike bag … The Waypost: Creative types come to this coffeehouse for locally produced wine and beer, as well as live music, lectures, and classic-movie screenings.”

However, not all of the residents are necessarily in favor of these changes taking place. And there are certainly other national media outlets who have picked up on the “other side” of the North Williams story. “Located in a historic African-American community, the North Williams businesses are almost exclusively white-owned, and many residents see bicycles as a symbol of the gentrification taking place in the neighborhood.”

The tensions of racism and gentrification have culminated in ongoing debates over North Williams’ status as a major bicycle thoroughfare. Sarah Goodyear of The Atlantic Cities (CityLab) writes, “Sharon Maxwell-Hendricks, a black business owner who grew up in the neighborhood, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the city’s plan for a wider, protected bike lane. She can’t help but feel that the city seems only to care about traffic safety now that white people are living in the area. ‘We as human beings deserved to have the same right to safer streets years ago,’ she says. ‘Why wasn’t there any concern about people living here then?’” This picks us on the tension surrounding the North Williams project in general, and in particular the controversy surrounding repainting the traffic lanes to incorporate new designs which cater to the growing number of bicyclists who use this corridor.

Goodyear goes on to lay out both sides of the controversy:

Jonathan Maus, who runs the Bike Portland blog and has reported extensively on the North Williams controversy, thinks the city should have stood its ground and gone forward with the project, but wasn’t willing to do so in part because of the political weakness of scandal-plagued Mayor Sam Adams, who has been a strong biking advocate and is closely identified with the biking community.

“There’s been too much emphasis on consensus,” said Maus. “I’m all for public process, but I also want the smartest transportation engineers in the country on bicycling to have their ideas prevail.”

Maus, who is white, says the history of North Williams shouldn’t be dictating current policy, and that safety issues for the many people who bike on the street are urgent. “At some point as a city, you have to start planning to serve the existing population,” he said. “The remaining black community is holding traffic justice hostage. It’s allowing injustice in the present because of injustice in the past.”

In light of this, why is North Williams the flashpoint for controversy? The tension and angst is about more than simply repainting a roadway; it embodies the most visual representation of gentrification in inner N/NE Portland. For longtime African-American residents, as expressed above by Maxwell-Hendricks, she and others felt that they had simply been neglected for decades. This negligence took the form of economics, housing, and general concerns of safety. Their frustration is that it wasn’t until middle-class whites began moving into the neighborhood that these issues began to be addressed and rectified. This notion of systemic racism helped created this area and these same forces are at play in gentrifying this once predominantly black neighborhood.

The African-American community feels it has been slighted once again. The initial citizen advisory committee revealed the imbalance: “Despite North Williams running through a historically African American neighborhood, the citizen advisory committee formed for the project included 18 white members and only 4 non-white members.” This is why the push for safety along the North Williams corridor has caused such an uproar. “The current debate about North Williams Avenue––once the heart of Albina’s business district––is only the latest chapter in a long story of development and redevelopment.”

For many in the African-American community the current debate over bike lanes along North Williams is simply one more example in a long line of injustices that have been forced upon their neighborhood. Beginning in 1956, 450 African-American homes and business were torn down to make way for the Memorial Coliseum. “It was also the year federal officials approved highway construction funds that would pave Interstates 5 and 99 right through hundreds of homes and storefronts, destroying more than 1,100 housing units in South Albina.” Then came the clearance of even more houses to make way for Emanuel Hospital. For more than 60 years, racism has been imbedded in the storyline of what has taken place along North Williams.

For many, the North Williams project is more than repainting lines. As Maus reported, “A meeting last night that was meant to discuss a new outreach campaign on N. Williams Avenue turned into a raw and emotional exchange between community members and project staff about racism and gentrification.” In his article, Maus noted the painful history of Albina as the primary catalyst for the tension today.

Lower Albina—the area of Portland just north and across the river from downtown through—was a thriving African-American community in the 1950s. Williams Avenue was at the heart of booming jazz clubs and home to a thriving black middle class. But history has not been kind to this area and through decades of institutional racism (through unfair development and lending practices), combined with the forces of gentrification, have led to a dramatic shift in the demographics of the neighborhood. The history of the neighborhood surrounding Williams now looms large over this project.

It was at this meeting that a comment from one of those in attendance changed the entire trajectory of the evening as the conversation quickly moved away from the proposed agenda. One woman said, “We have an issue of racism and of the history of this neighborhood. I think if we’re trying to skirt around that we’re not going to get very far. We really need to address some of the underlying, systemic issues that have happened over last 60 years. I’ve seen it happen from a front row seat in this neighborhood. It’s going to be very difficult to move forward and do a plan that suits all of these stakeholders until we address the history that has happened. Until we address that history and … the cultural differences we have in terms of respect, we are not going to move very far.”

The crux of the conflict is not about bicycles nor bike lanes nor even new businesses and amenities. It is about racism. The push for creating a more bikeable and bike-friendly commuter corridor has raised the ire of longstanding residents who had felt neglected and voiceless for decades. “The North Williams case study is an example of the City inadequately identifying, engaging and communicating with stakeholders.”

Now that more whites are moving in are changes taking place. “Some question why the city now has $370,000 to pour into a project they say favors the bike community while residents for decades asked for resources to improve safety in those same neighborhoods. To the community, the conversation has polarized the issue: white bicyclists versus the black community.” But is this issue completely race-related? Portland has been and continues to expand its bicycle infrastructure throughout the city, not just in N/NE Portland. There are also several other main bicycle corridors that receive a high volume of bicycle commuters, but since they do not go through any ethnic neighborhoods they have not created this much controversy. This does not minimize the tension and angst over the North Williams project; nor does it downplay the role that racism has played throughout the history of that community.

Note: Footnotes in the original text have been removed. Some hyperlinks have been added.

This is a condensed chapter excerpt from The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Portland
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