Sunday, March 01, 2009

Rust Belt Chic Providence

My memory might be playing tricks on me. I recall, not too long ago, that Providence, RI was an emerging hot spot for young adults. The marketing and wishful thinking were deceiving. Today, the depression is hitting Providence harder than most American cities:

One striking difference is that Rhode Islanders are less educated than much of the country. The state has the lowest high school graduation rate in the Northeast and ranks 38th nationally. Its average private-sector salary in 2007 was $39,827, compared with $55,819 in Massachusetts and $59,174 in Connecticut.

Unlike its neighbors, Rhode Island continues to rely heavily on blue-collar and service-industry jobs. Its largest employment sectors are health care, manufacturing and retail, which pay $27,000 to $46,000 a year on average.

“In that way, we look more like a rust belt state than Connecticut or Massachusetts,” said Laura Hart, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Labor and Training.

Rhode Islanders also tend to cling to old stereotypes about the state, like its mob culture and corrupt politicians, others said.

The New York Times article hits almost every note of the postindustrial blues. I highly recommend the story to small government advocates who make sloppy claims about the relationship between tax regimes and migration. Relative tax relief in a neighboring state is much more attractive than the personal and economic freedom utopia of Colorado.

My grievances aired, I want to move on to the more provocative part of the piece:

Jack Templin, a consultant who founded Providence Geeks, a networking group for people in digital media and information technology, said the energetic group could help shape a new economic development model. Over dinner recently, several of its members echoed the view that the state is small enough for individuals to effect change.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of places where you can pick up the phone and talk to the governor or the mayor,” said Allan Tear, who moved to Providence from Atlanta after making a spreadsheet about the pros and cons of eight cities around the country.

Many of those interviewed said the innovative spirit that fueled the Industrial Revolution here must return if the state is to bounce back. Perhaps most crucially, many existing companies need to reinvent themselves to survive. Mr. Shedd’s company has done just that: it first provided boxes for the state’s once-dominant jewelry industry, then for the software industry, and most recently for gift cards.

He stays, he said, because he loves the state’s beauty and its quirkiness, both of which keep drawing people like Marjory Garrison, a 30-year-old consultant to nonprofit groups.

Ms. Garrison moved to Providence last summer from Brooklyn and became so captivated that she started her own recruitment campaign, plastering neighborhoods in Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn and Seattle with posters that shout “Move to Providence!”

“It has so much going for it, and so much of that is still under the surface in a lot of ways,” she said. “I think people here believe that once you crack that open, anything is possible.”

The above would seem to be the blueprint for reinventing the Rust Belt. Don't try to be the next Seattle or Austin. Shoot to be the next Youngstown or Pittsburgh:

So many small manufacturing towns in the Midwest need radical changes in public policy, but only a handful of them show any signs of doing so. I think it is notable that it is Youngstown, which was completely ravaged by the collapse of the steel industry, that decided to think the unthinkable and embark on a planned shrinkage plan. Again, it was Pittsburgh, a city that lost practically its entire industrial base, that dared to go off in a new direction. If only we could get places to see the value of a different way before it came to that position.

The Tech Belt is the nation's cradle for civic entrepreneurship.

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