Monday, June 01, 2009

Wild Detroit

I consider Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) to be a vital virtual acquaintance, a comrade in arms. I think we see the urban Midwest in a similar light. I write this preface because I don't want my readers to conclude that I'm attempting to surreptitiously pass off an independent validation of my own ideas with this article in Crain's Detroit Business:

Almost as important, he said, is having an open business and social structure. For a region to attract outsiders, those new arrivals have to feel that they can become an integral part of the community.

This, I tell him, isn't a problem in Detroit. It's wide open here. Want to start a young entrepreneurs' group? Go for it. Your own DJ night? Doable.

Renn agrees, noting a recent article in New York Magazine about young New Yorkers moving to Buffalo.

“There's this notion that the Rust Belt is the new American frontier,” he said. “There's no more West to settle, there's no more wide open space to conquer, where is the next wide open frontier? You can come here and reinvent your future because you're dealing with a blank canvas.”

Aaron e-mailed to me the story and I'm of the mind that the reporter did a good job of relaying the message you can find in almost any post at The Urbanophile. The advice is sound and actionable.

However, it is also one side of an important policy debate. Politics and Place picked up on my critique of the management of the Rust Belt brand:

One final thing. Russell used the term "Frontier Geographies" as a label for his post. I've been very torn on the use of the "pioneering" allegory for what is occurring in America's cities right now following my reading of a very interesting article by Neil Smith entitled: "New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West". Though it was written over 15 years ago and about a very different place, I think a lot of the points are important ones to make. While the pioneer ethos has some good qualities, the unbridled capitalism and disregard for local cultures of the frontier serve as an important reminder about the dangers of the pioneering mindset.

I see Rust Belt urban decay as the foundation for economic opportunity, something that would attract talent from around the world. I celebrate the term "Rust Belt" as a comparative advantage. Ryan Avent's plan to save Detroit is a kindred spirit. But Detroit doesn't need saving any more than Pittsburgh does. Shrinking cities must offer an alternative urban experience that can syphon away some of the migration heading to "cool cities" such as Austin and Seattle. And the answer to "Why Detroit?" shouldn't be the same as "Why Buffalo?" Every Rust Belt city can't offer the same value proposition of cheap housing and a frontier experience, just as every region can't successfully champion biotech or green innovation.

That tragedy of the commons can be avoided with an understanding of local cultures and the tough lessons we've learned about unbridled capitalism, something I think that the Rust Belt ethos already does too well. The best part of the frontier spirit is risk taking and that's something that long-distance migrants have in spades.

1 comment:

Stephen Gross said...

I've seen a lot of special-case articles covering the few who choose to relocate to the "under-valued" cities (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, etc.). These articles usually cite--with a mixture of surprise and incredulity--the new inhabitants' enthusiasm.

I have not, however, seen a thorough analysis of the vast majority of folks who are moving to the "cool" cities. I suppose you don't need an analysis because it's such a common occurence. Yet, it would be very interesting to read actual interviews with people relo'ing to Austin/Seattle/etc. and find out what attracts them.

Lastly, I'll note that the WSJ had a good article last week on why immigration to Portland (OR) continues, despite the city's terrible unemployment status.