Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brain Drain Dallas: The Hysteria Continues

Dallas isn't cool enough to retain its young talent:

Rawlins, I love ya, I've even met ya, not that you'd know me from Adam. But I think your 'old man' view of how downtown should be is not fostering of a viable city center-- and because people like you make all the development decisions, people like me live in other, 'real' cities.

Just an anecdote: I am 26. Born and raised in Dallas. I know, forgive my modesty, everyone who graduated from every Dallas high school- public or private- within 3 years of me. Basically anyone who is a college grad and under 30 who grew up in the city, like I did. And I know most of the youngish movers and shakers who live in Dallas now. The 2 groups barely overlap. We have a huge brain drain problem in Dallas. It's not really talked about because it's not as easily quantifiable as the drop out rate or teen pregnancy. But it's a bigger problem, because it will manifest itself in 10 years and last for 30 years after that.

Did you know that not one person who represents Dallas in DC is from Dallas? Can you name the last mayor who is from our fair city? (hint: it's not Leppert, Miller, or Kirk)

I think this is huge reason for the lack of progress in continuity in the development of our city. If no one here remembers the mistakes how will we avoid them?

For the record I plan on returning and raising my family in the city, but unless I can convince them, few of my peers plan on doing the same. And you and I will be left to live next door to the hicks from east Texas and the guidos from south Jersey.

The above is a reaction to a blog post in the Dallas Morning News which serves up a Financial Times critique of the city's new Arts District. Actually, it is part of an exchange between two commenters well worth reading. The complaint is at the heart of many attempts to retain local graduates in shrinking cities. Make the downtown appealing to young adults and they won't leave. However, the point isn't whether or not Dallas scores highly on the cool factor with its Arts District.

By just about any metric, Dallas is a thriving city. It pulls in talent from all over the country. It is an attraction winner. There isn't a brain drain problem. That's because the exodus of natives doesn't matter. Using brain anxiety to sell an expensive gentrification program is no better than libertarian attempts to convince (invoking the same fear) the polity to cut taxes. Any guesses about the political leanings of those who offer the loudest critiques of the various Cool Cities initiatives? Two sides of the same coin.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shrinking Cities Talent

Update: Searching my own archive revealed a couple other posts worth noting. First, I found the Federal Reserve Bank reports about brain drain. They came from the Minneapolis branch. Second, that sweep netted an interesting story about the brain drain in Minneapolis as worse than the one in Cleveland. In other words, more talented people left Minneapolis than Cleveland. Chew on that for a spell.

I've linked to a large number of reports in this blog and now I'm in danger of losing track of some very useful data. The following is not an exhaustive list. I've searched for the key documents that serve as the foundation for my suggested boomerang migration initiative.

The first step involved debunking the dominant brain drain narrative that is behind most plans for workforce development. There is a lot of useful analysis coming out of Michigan aimed at a better understanding of talent migration. Here is a blog post I wrote about geographic mobility of doctoral graduates. The link to the report is now broken, but a Growthology post has the 411. That's a good place to start if you want to track it down. Of note is the acute brain drain problem in Indiana. More brain drain numbers can be found here.

Over my three years of blogging, I've seen much more interest in talent migration. (Check out the latest American Community Survey publication.) A good example comes from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. I posted about their report, but that's another dead link. Using the information stashed there, I'm confident I could dig it up with a few Google search tricks.

I've got a polished piece over at New Geography that details Pittsburgh's unexpected brain gain. I've properly attributed my ideas to Chris Briem, who has labored to debunk the persistent brain drain myths plaguing SW PA. Check out his website for links to his work. Briem's analysis has provided me with the confidence to challenge the dominant policy narratives in play throughout the Rust Belt. I'm still seeking an active talent management initiative that makes sense. And before I forget, I link to a few important reports in the NG article that helped me to better understand Pittsburgh's prescient investment in human capital. The stuff from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank is obvious enough, but more on the Brookings data here.

Finally, I can think of no clearer rebuke of brain drain hysteria than the report from Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Buffalo Branch. The problem is talent attraction, not talent retention. Whenever I read about another retention initiative, I roll my eyes largely as a result of the Fed's groundbreaking analysis. The Federal Reserve Bank system is a treasure trove of useful data. I still have to find the post that references the study, but I need to track down the FRB critique of brain drain policies as untested. A lot of money and effort is spent with no idea if it will work. Thus, I cry "boondoggle" or "red herring" when politicians make claims that they will plug the brain drain.

Pittsburgh Art and Tech Corridor

From Pittsburgh Art + Technology:

The Pittsburgh Technology Council is in currently creating a proposal to create an Art and Tech Corridor in the Cultural District during this year’s arts festival, and is looking for companies and individuals to participate – and showcase the innovation and creativity of our region.

I like this idea. It would help the Pittsburgh arts scene stand out globally and become a destination for people interested in the intersection of art and technology. I'd characterize the initiative as a clever talent attraction strategy that will add considerable vibrancy to the downtown.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Empire State Exodus: Taxes And Migration

The libertarians are at it again. The argument is that cutting taxes attracts people. The latest in a long line of policy experts making the same ridiculous claim is the Empire Center for New York State Policy:

What accounts for New York’s chronic inability to attract and retain more Americans than it loses every year? Any attempt to answer that question must begin with New York’s state and local tax burden, perennially ranked among the heaviest in the country. Taxes aside, likely explanations differ regionally. Downstate residents face high taxes and housing costs rated among the most “severely unaffordable” in the world. Land-use regulations in downstate New York also tend to inhibit growth. In upstate New York, housing is relatively inexpensive but even more heavily taxed, and new economic opportunities have been scarce.

Weather, on the other hand, seems less compelling as an explanation. After all, while the Sunbelt’s climate has long attracted northerners, cold winters haven’t stopped New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Minnesota from adding population while upstate New York has been shrinking.

This much is clear: with New York now facing the most serious fiscal and economic crisis in its modern history, government policies should be aimed at slowing down and ultimately reversing the state’s population drain.

That's the conclusion provided in the executive summary. Perhaps the actual report is a bit more compelling. But the overview plays fast and loose with the numbers. Net domestic migration isn't very useful for this kind of analysis. I know from experience that the IRS provides disaggregated data. Invoking the term "exodus" and then presenting net migration as evidence is the work of hucksters. The intent is to deceive, using the red herring of brain drain to achieve a certain policy end.

Most of the NY State media ate it up. One of the more thoughtful interrogations:

Still, despite all these trends, New York’s population rose 2.7 percent this decade, to 19.5 million people. The report says the top reason for that is a growing influx of foreign immigrants downstate.

Other researchers have reached different conclusions when studying migration patterns in New York.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for instance, has found that while upstate has been experiencing a net loss of college-educated workers, it’s because of a low rate of people moving into New York—rather than an abnormally high rate of people leaving the state.

Out-migration rates are abnormally low, now more than in the recent past thanks to the Great Recession. That's hard to discern given slight of hand the Empire Center employs. Even the conclusion is confusing. Is cold weather Wisconsin growing population because of immigrants? Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are net migration losers. Shrinking states, in relocation terms.

The executive summary, designed for easy media consumption, is bullshit.

G-20 Hangover

I'm working on a more detailed post for this afternoon. For now, a quick hit about perceptions of Pittsburgh in the wake of the G-20 Summit. From Forbes, Industrial Pittsburgh:

While the strength of a metro's mass transit in some cases influenced its traffic fatality rank, the types of industry located there largely affected each city's workplace death rate. These tended to be lowest in areas like Seattle and San Jose that contain a profusion of technology and service jobs--or Detroit, where nearly one quarter of the workforce is unemployed. Dangerous jobs are more prevalent in industrial centers like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, whose workplace death rates were five times higher than the safest, Minneapolis.

That's from an article listing America's safest cities. From the standpoint of workplace death rates, Postindustrial Pittsburgh appears to be an exaggeration. Coverage of the Steelers-Vikings tilt in the Toronto Star indicates that Canada got the makeover memo:

As the No. 1 sports city in North America, Pittsburgh is a great place to live and play but, obviously, a tough place for visiting teams to compete.

Latest to feel the cool welcome of Steeltown are the Minnesota Vikings, who had their 6-0 start derailed Sunday by a Steeler team forged from the same mettle that carried last season's version all the way to a Super Bowl victory.

That championship, combined with the Stanley Cup won by the Pittsburgh Penguins as well as strong performances from local college teams, made Pittsburgh the top choice out of 399 cities eligible for consideration by The Sporting News in its ranking of best sports cities for 2009.

For what it's worth, Toronto came in at No. 36, tops in Canada (Vancouver is No. 39, Calgary No. 42, Montreal No. 45, among others). That placing seems wildly generous considering the moribund state of the Maple Leafs, TFC, Argos, etc.

Some small glimmer of hope is being supplied lately by the Bills, which Toronto sort-of, kind-of shares with Buffalo. If the Bills are winning, we'll take a piece of that action, and Sunday Buffalo won its second game in a row, improving to 3-4 with a 20-9 win over the meow-mix Panthers at Carolina.

But there's nothing quite like being a Pittsburgher. Pass the mustard.

I don't have a point to make. I'm merely tracking the Pittsburgh brand post-G-20.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Burgh Energy Report: Pittsburgh People Renaissance

One of the more fascinating job descriptions I've ever seen is currently featured at Dewey & Kaye:

The Regional Opportunity Center (ROC) is seeking to attract, retain and elevate diverse workers in the Pittsburgh region. The ROC has implemented a PILOT program with regional energy sector companies including, but not limited to, EQT Corporation (EQT) Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC (Westinghouse) and Emerson Electric Co. (Emerson) with the goal of collaborating to attract, retain and elevate a significant number of diverse workers to the three particular companies. The organization is seeking an experienced professional to plan, direct, and coordinate the activities of the energy companies participating in the PILOT to ensure that the overall program objectives are met.

The Regional Opportunity Center, an independent 501c3 nonprofit entity was developed to address this gap in our region, and work closely with the corporate, government, nonprofit, education, labor and foundation communities to ensure success. The themes that define our work are Grow (our inclusivity), Attract, Retain and Elevate (a talented workforce), and Promote (the culture here in SW PA).

The vision of the Regional Opportunity Center is to have the Pittsburgh Region be recognized as one of the most livable regions for a talented workforce of all backgrounds, and among the leading regions in elevating, retaining and attracting a diverse workforce. The ROC’s mission is to spearhead the next Pittsburgh renaissance - a "People Renaissance" that:
1. Embraces inclusion;
2. Ensures our region's growth by elevating, retaining and attracting a diverse workforce; and
3. Promotes Pittsburgh - nationally and internationally - as a diverse, welcoming region of opportunities.

Obviously, that is a tall order. The person who lands this position will have to understand the geopolitics of talent and energy. But you won't find that listed among the skill requirements. In my opinion, that's a gross oversight. The region is embarking on a campaign like that of resource rich Alberta, which is the main reason I'm referencing the employment posting. The demand for skilled labor is enormous and I'd bet there is considerable panic about the looming shortage. I doubt that even the most preferred candidates will be up for the task.

According to an interview with Canada’s environment minister, Jim Prentice, published Friday in The Globe and Mail, Canada will be heading to Copenhagen looking for less aggressive emission targets than Europe or Japan because of its faster-growing population and energy-intensive industrial structure.

With climate-change bills working through Congress, environmentalists have pressed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to block the construction of large cross-border pipelines meant to increase exports of crude from bitumen refining operations.

Canadian oil executives are concerned that new American fuel standards will work against bitumen crude, which requires vast amounts of natural gas to refine.

But Ms. Raisinghani said it is “premature to comment” about the impact of such policies on Canadian crude exports. “We will follow the progress of U.S. legislative and regulatory actions with interest.”

Mr. Prentice indicated last week that the Canadian government does not intend to reveal its negotiating position at Copenhagen before the American government does. He also told The Globe that hopes for a successful treaty in December seemed to be fading.

These geopolitical squabbles will be a major force in the kind of talent demand coming from energy companies. Global pressure against bitumen crude might soften the demand for natural gas and help keep prices low, keeping a lid on the Marcellus boom. But that isn't the biggest concern.

The two countries will end up in a clean tech race. Given the proximity, it isn't a stretch to see cross-border talent poaching. Alberta has aggressively courted frustrated H-1B visa holders tired of waiting for a US Green Card. I envision a trade war over human capital. That's bad news for Pittsburgh's Diversity in Energy Program Manager. The SW PA region isn't accustomed to attracting lots of migrants. This inflow infrastructure must be built from scratch. After all, we aren't that far removed from the days of Border Guard Bob, the prevailing mindset today.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Talent and Churn

I'm back from Maui. Hawaii is the 50th state I've visited. I'm rested, but itching to write and the trip helped to validate a few ideas.

I'll jump back into blogging with a post from Eve Picker:

Pittsburgh is his entry point back into the country. He already has a timeline firmly implanted in his mind for the length of his stay here. Three years and then on to a better place.

My first reaction when he told me this was disappointment. But Chris Briem set me straight. He said “I bet places like Manhattan or Boston, or places one might think are ‘not second best’ are full of transitory people who will not stay.”. And of course, he’s right.

Chris Briem also set me straight. At least, reading his blog and other pieces he authored prompted me to rethink my concern about Pittsburgh brain drain. So, I'm almost certain I understand his frustration when another writer makes the same mistake I made:

Ugh. Brain drain. No, I won't waste any time repeating myself with the errors in that oft-repeated logic. Thus the worst thing the [article] says about us is mostly a misunderstanding.

A declining population doesn't mean brain drain is occurring. In fact, natural decline can result in brain gain. That's the case in Pittsburgh (and other Rust Belt cities) with the less educated dying off and a younger generation more keen on obtaining a college degree. A shrinking city isn't necessarily a dumber city. The talent dividend is still a possibility.

There are a host of myths about brain drain, almost all of them easily debunked. (Hat tip Donald Bonk) I'm already convinced that human capital retention strategies are at least a waste of resources or at worst a boondoggle serving only special interests. (See Grants for Grads in Ohio) Plugging the brain drain is bad policy based on a distortion of the facts.

States and cities are missing the boat. The latest issue of Entrepreneur is case and point. (Hat tip Jim Cossler, Youngstown Business Incubator) My spotlight is on Montana:

For many, moving west means facing the Montana Compromise: You can live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, but you’ll have to write off any thoughts of a livable income. Bozeman and MSU are working to overcome that. The university, through its Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West, is tapping into the state’s independent streak: Montana has one of the largest shares of small businesses and self-employed people in the nation. Since it was founded in 2001, the facility’s students have provided 10,000 hours of consulting advice to 40 local companies, says center director Scott Bryant. The center’s efforts haven’t yet stemmed the brain drain--roughly half of MSU students still follow their careers out of state. But Bozeman is rapidly solidifying its place as the entrepreneurial hotbed of the Northern Rockies in hopes that its homespun entrepreneurs can live in Big Sky Country and still make the mortgage payment.

The article looks at the best synergies between university and town concerning the retention of entrepreneurial talent. The Montana State story is a good example of how this approach is all wrong. The MSU blurb itself admits as much (see emphasized passage).

Back to my Maui experience. My wife is in software sales and her efforts were rewarded with this trip. I was afforded the opportunity to rub elbows with other enterprise stars. I spoke with a couple residing in Denver. The husband is from Nebraska, the wife from Montana. They expressed a desire to boomerang back to her home state.

I would like to introduce the MSU entrepreneurial program to this Denver-based duo. Montana is a right to work state, which the expatriate noted as standing in the way of their relocation dreams. Here we have two well-educated people with tech employment experience dying to move to Montana.

Talented? Check.

Highly motivated? Check.

Confused about how to move where they most want live? Check.


Rethink the "Montana Compromise" as an attraction problem. Trying to hold onto college graduates is, in a word, dumb. MBA programs strike me as the perfect vehicle to pull in the mid-career candidates described above. Teach them how to create the jobs that allow them to live wherever they want to live. There isn't an advanced degree in the entire universe with this focus. Little wonder why Chris Briem is so frustrated.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Burgh Energy Report: Natural Gas Buzz

I've got a bunch of good blog posts lined up, but I doubt I'll get to them all before heading to Maui on Sunday. I'll be incognito all next week, a real vacation. Today's news concerns unconventional natural gas. Read Chris Briem's post about drilling in the city. I'll add to the theme with this tidbit from the Tribune-Review:

Hart Energy Publishing LP is organizing the event where executives from leading operators in the Marcellus Shale regions of Western Pennsylvania and bordering states will discuss their drilling programs.

Originally, a few hundred people were expected. But registration has grown to more than 1,300 registrants, the VisitPittsburgh tourism agency said Thursday.

The unexpected interest in the conference demanded a change in venue. I'm curious as to why the hosts were unable to anticipate how many people would come. It's almost an order of magnitude bigger. Does the regional industry leadership understand how big this play is?

Unless monitoring is greatly expanded, they say, such emissions could soar as global production of natural gas increases over the next few decades.

The Energy Department projects that gas production could rise nearly 50 percent over the next 20 years as companies race to discover and tap new sources. In the United States, 4,000 miles of new pipeline was laid last year alone.

But the industry has been largely resistant to an aggressive cleanup.

Anyone still wonder why the unconventional natural gas convention needed a bigger space?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Somewhat related to yesterday's question du jour, an organization that gets to the heart of a sticky problem:

Until now, information on neighborhoods has been buried in the back of academic reports, pinned to community center bulletin boards, and locked in data sets only available to planners, inaccessible to those who would benefit from it the most: housing seekers looking for a better neighborhood. will leverage the power of this information by combining these and other data sources into a single mapping engine built into a full-featured site that includes guides, tools, calculators, forums, and social networks, all designed to foster racial and economic integration.

Previous integration initiatives have proven costly and focused on families receiving public aid. Housing seekers with unlimited funds have always had the luxury of living where they choose. But for millions of families who have limited resources, finding the right neighborhood is difficult. will educate housing seekers about the benefits of integrative moves while at the same time providing suggestions on where to move, guides on how to move, and information on how to get involved in their new neighborhoods, inspiring pride in a new community and putting them on a path to true integration.

I emphasized the part that concerns unintentional immobility, the lack of locational choice resulting from a paucity of information and knowledge. This shortage was exploited to the hilt during the industrial era. The female workforce still suffers from a captive labor situation.

Access to information isn't the issue. Knowledge, not information, drives migration. A better predictor is trust. I can cite all the statistics and demonstrate keen knowledge of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. But you won't consider moving to Pittsburgh unless you trust my assessment. won't succeed in its efforts if it can't build up the requisite social capital. I think this where social media experts could be of great service.

A good example of such an approach is PittsburghToday, which recently announced a relaunch of its website. Behind the social media makeover are 3 Rivers Connect, deeplocal and Active Interface. I like the new look, but I have no idea how it will build up knowledge and trust. We're still feeling our way around these new forms of community. I suggest a study of diaspora and other social technologies that help trust overcome distance. There is a clear need for such research.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Question Of The Day

From PGH is a City:

Why are immigrants skipping over cities like Pittsburgh (1.3% Hispanic) and Cincinnati (1.3%) in favor of fellow rust belt cities like Rochester (12.8%) and Buffalo (7.5%) and Cleveland (7.3%)?

That's a great question for a geographer to answer.

Diaspora Networking Made Easy

Wednesday morning usually means clicking through the all the Pop City stories. Two items grabbed my attention. One concerns another I Heart Pittsburgh story, notable because I didn't catch it when first published. The link is to Intelligent Life, an Economist newspaper production. I've never heard of the quarterly. Is it new? Of interest is the focus on Braddock and the developing artist community there. Definitely not your typical Pittsburgh puff piece.

The second Pop City offering acting as my muse today is the subject of this post. Native is a new social network in Pittsburgh. The introduction to the initiative reminds me of something I'm working on for Youngstown:

Brian Supler is a native of the Pittsburgh region, but like so many people he ventured to other cities and countries before deciding to return here. After a decade spent living in New York City, he returned to the region last year seeking challenge and opportunity.

Katherine Harrel belongs to that other demographic you hear so much about in Pittsburgh these days: She wasn't born in Pittsburgh, but she's adopted it as her home. It feels instinctively right to her, and it's the place she's chosen to put down roots.

After working in the nonprofit and for-profit worlds in various cities, Supler and Harrel have joined forces to create a new organization – still in its infancy – that's meant to connect the best and brightest of today's Pittsburgh to one another. Both believe strongly in the importance of mentoring and effective networking, and they're committed to helping develop and keep creative minds here in Pittsburgh.

Supler as boomerang migrant reinforces a dynamic I've been studying over the last few months while shepherding a pilot diaspora networking project. Given the Pittsburgh job market, you likely have to want to live there in order to manage a move to the region. That's a good thing, believe it or not. Many people often move to boomtowns such as Portland or Austin without a job in hand. Returning to a Rust Belt city would take even a bigger leap of faith. The embrace of risk is an entrepreneurial attribute. Supler would be Exhibit A.

Katherine Harrel might be Exhibit B, but I'm not sure if that is true at this time. It depends on why she moved to Pittsburgh. My idea is to network boomerang migrants living in shrinking cities. The evolution of this approach started with the El Paso suggestion to target members of the diaspora who are job creators, self-starters. The problem is finding these dynamic people and then facilitating a move back, if the expatriate is even interested in leaving her current residence.

A bit of good fortune brought to my attention an article in the Wall Street Journal. I've already referenced the Scranton renaissance and how boomerang migrants (primarily from New York City) were finding each other in their hometown. Imagine an initiative such as Native exclusively for boomerang migrants. The upside to doing this is tapping the connections these people have in their expatriate city. This approach gets around a couple of problems, including the need for the occasional face-to-face meeting. Primarily, it solves the needle-in-the-haystack operation I'm currently overseeing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pittsburgh A Great Place To Start A Small Business

Update: I see in the Tribune-Review that the rankings are from Fortune magazine.

Or so says (via TECHburgher). Georgia Berner provides the inside scoop:

The seven-county area here has a lot going for it, and Pittsburgh is the star of western Pennsylvania. Everyone talks about Pittsburgh's universities, and of course they turn out well-educated students ready to go.

That's one side of the equation. The other is that there are lots of people here who know how to make things -- tradesmen and craftsmen. We too often overlook people who can make things. I need assemblers and equipment operators and welders, just as households need plumbers and carpenters. Pittsburgh has a wealth of those people. The cost of housing and services here is much less than elsewhere, so these workers can support a family quite nicely here.

That "build stuff" ethos could be a big asset given the latest reset of economic globalization. The push is for the United States to be more export-oriented. That assumes, of course, that the BRIC countries are ready to import more manufactured goods. That's the basic give and take of international trade, but there is also the prospect of the United State orienting its own market more towards domestic production.

Just as the world shifted away from the Rust Belt, it now returns.

Cheap Energy Geography

Cheap energy is back. Marketplace aired an incredible story Monday morning. The interviewee is the journalist of an article in the British newspaper Telegraph:

As for the US, we may soon be looking at an era when gas, wind and solar power, combined with a smarter grid and a switch to electric cars returns the country to near energy self-sufficiency.

This has currency implications. If you strip out the energy deficit, America's vaulting savings rate may soon bring the current account back into surplus – and that is going to come at somebody else's expense, chiefly Japan, Germany and, up to a point, China.

Shale gas is undoubtedly messy. Millions of gallons of water mixed with sand, hydrochloric acid and toxic chemicals are blasted at rocks. This is supposed to happen below the water basins but accidents have been common. Pennsylvania's eco-police have shut down a Cabot Oil & Gas operation after 8,000 gallons of chemicals spilled into a stream.

Nor is it exactly green. Natural gas has much lower CO2 emissions than coal, even from shale – which is why the Sierra Club is backing it as the lesser of evils against "clean coal" (not yet a reality). The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said America may not need any new coal or nuclear plants "ever" again.

Trying to unravel all the geopolitical implications of a world drowning in natural gas makes my head spin. What this will mean for Pittsburgh is staggering to contemplate. It is also good news for the Mahoning Valley where steel tubes used in the natural gas industry are produced. V&M Star is poised to invest $1 billion into its Youngstown plant.

The natural gas infrastructure, including industry innovation, could be manufactured primarily within the Tech Belt. An energy boom seems imminent with or without the right price point in the market. The driver will be the popularity of American energy independence. I'm confident in this geopolitical shift given the Russian posturing:

Texas A&M University said US methods could increase global gas reserves by nine times to 16,000 TCF (trillion cubic feet). Almost a quarter is in China but it may lack the water resources to harness the technology given the depletion of the North China water basin.

Needless to say, the Kremlin is irked. "There's a lot of myths about shale production," said Gazprom's Alexander Medvedev.

If the new forecasts are accurate, Gazprom is not going to be the perennial cash cow funding Russia's great power resurgence. Russia's budget may be in structural deficit.

We live in interesting times.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Midwestern Metro Stars

Over the weekend, I reacquainted myself with the doings of Richard Longworth. If you are unfamiliar with Longworth, I consider him to be a Midwestern expert on economic globalization. Recently, Site Selection magazine caught up with Longworth and asked him to name some Midwestern cities that are heading in the right direction:

"Des Moines is doing quite well. The Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor really was hurt by the floods. But they have a lot of smart people doing everything right. I have every confidence they'll come back. The Cedar Valley region around Waterloo is pushing the right buttons."

I picked the blurb about Iowa because it dovetails nicely with a story about migration to Iowa City:

Why do these trouble-makers come, Vernon asks. As has been widely noted there is something of a push caused by large-scale changes in public housing in Chicago; but there is a pull as well. Iowa City is attractive. My impression -- judging from the low-income black residents from Chicago whom I have met -- is that there are many factors involved.

Some have come trying to make a better life for themselves, but especially for their children, trying to get away from a climate of violence and from schools unable to cope with their students' problems.

Some came because of the uneven distribution of housing subsidies between Chicago and Iowa City. Until recently it had been common knowledge that the wait for those eligible for federally funded housing subsidies in Chicago was counted in years. In Iowa City, the wait was counted in weeks or months.

So some have come because Iowa City offered a better chance at decent housing for someone working for $8 or $9 an hour.

The Chicago-to-Iowa City pipeline is an interesting case of network migration. But I want to highlight the value proposition, which is the greater purchasing power in communities with some sort of strong connection to high-cost Chicago. That my segue to the latest from Wendell Cox at New Geography:

The east coast regions ranked among the top 10 metropolitan areas in nominal income also were decimated by their high costs, with only Washington (which rose from 3rd to 2nd) and Boston (which fell from 4th to 6th) remaining. New York fell from 5th to 21st, Hartford from 7th to 13th and Philadelphia from 10th to 16th.

The two non-coastal metropolitan areas in the nominal top 10 remain, with Denver rising from to 3rd and Minneapolis-St. Paul rising from 9th to 4th.

It can be argued that Middle-America replaced the five metropolitan areas dropping out of the top ten. Houston, long one of the most disparaged metropolitan areas among urbanists, occupies the 5th position (compared to its 11th ranking in the nominal list). Three of the new entrants are confirmed members of the Rust Belt: Pittsburgh (7th), St. Louis (8th) and Milwaukee (9th). Finally, there is a new east coast entrant, blue-collar Baltimore (10th). ...

... Outside the top 10 most affluent metropolitan areas, there are other surprises. Urban planning favorite Portland ranks 40th, just above Buffalo. Rust Belt Cleveland ranks 17th, a few positions above New York. Kansas City, with its highly decentralized civic architecture, ranks 12th, just behind Seattle. Indianapolis (17th) is more affluent than Chicago (18th) and both are more affluent than New York.

Cox adjusts metro per capita income for purchasing power, figuring out how much $1 is worth in different American cities. An $8 or $9 per hour job goes a lot further in Iowa City than it does in Chicago. Via Aaron Renn's twitter feed, read about being young and jobless in New York City. Better to be young and jobless in Pittsburgh, if you get my drift.

Again, declining or flat population numbers tend to dominate our perception of place. Making a go of it in Big City is irrational. I'd characterize it as a dumb geographic mobility strategy. The hope is akin to winning the lottery. Better to cut your teeth in a minor league town and then make the big move.

As the knowledge about the opportunity landscape begins to diffuse, I expect more people to carefully weigh cost and benefit. This should bode well for many Midwestern cities, particularly the ones that Longworth lists as coping well with the forces of globalization.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Political Legacy Costs

After an uninspiring tour of this morning's news, I intended to take a Sunday off from blogging. Then Chris Briem posted this. He links to a great article in the Las Vegas Sun. It is another What-Pittsburgh-Can-Teach-The-World piece. If you have had your fill of Burghophilia, then you'll want to skip this one.

I enjoyed reading the city comparison (Las Vegas, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, and Pittsburgh) for two reasons. First, Angie Schmitt of Rust Wire is quoted extensively. She's the main source for describing Cleveland's malaise. I love seeing a member of the Rust Belt Vanguard getting some serious ink. Second, there is a treasure trove of nuggets that synthesize almost every theme I've explored in this blog. I'm having a hard time picking just one to highlight. I'll settle for the bit about frontier geographies since it might help further my exchange with Aaron Renn:

Experts say cities that thrive are those with a clean political system and a civic culture that encourages cooperation and giving back. (Chicago is an obvious exception, though for what it lacks in the former, it makes up for in the latter.)

The paragraph after that one will make most Pittsburghers cringe. But political corruption in the city is relatively benign. I don't intend to dismiss the criticism as unwarranted, but all the griping lacks a proper comparative context. Take a closer look at Cleveland, for example.

An instructive contrast that will help to illuminate the above quoted passage is Youngstown and Girard, two neighbors in the Mahoning Valley. The tension between the two cities concerned the expansion of the V&M Star steel pipe production plant. I won't bore you with the details of that deal. Suffice to say that Girard Mayor James Melfi made quite the spectacle of himself in what amounts to a petty turf war. I am surprised to see the Youngstown Vindicator dance lightly around Melfi's tantrum:

When Vallourec and Mannesmann Tubes of suburban Paris, France, announced that it wants to build a state-of-the-art steel-making facility adjacent to its Youngstown-based V&M Star Steel plant, it became clear that land in Girard would be needed. The transfer of land in and of itself was a major point of contention in the negotiations, but the talks took on a definite negative tone after Girard Mayor James Melfi found out that the amount of land wasn’t the 80 acres Youngstown officials had discussed from the beginning, but 191 acres.

Reporters had long used the 80-acre figure, and no attempt was made to correct the record.

Youngstown officials contended that the 191 acres were clearly identified on the maps that were used during the first presentation of the project. However, Melfi claims he did not find out the true acreage until a couple of months ago.

I'm still rolling my eyes. Melfi represents the kind of politics that the article in the Las Vegas Sun contends undermines economic development. On the other hand, the leadership in Youngstown should be a model for the "clean" approach. The civic cooperation is outstanding. But one bad apple (Melfi) can spoil the entire Mahoning Valley barrel. There is still substantial regional inertia to overcome.

Regardless, I see Youngstown as the engine to pull the entire area out of the doldrums. The revitalization of the city core is already apparent, even to the Economist. Frustrated with corruption in Detroit and Cleveland? Move to Youngstown.

One other thing about the article ... Look at the data for all the cities. Boston and Pittsburgh are statistical equals for the percentage of population with a college degree. That's the Pittsburgh Paradox. More on that in a forthcoming post.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Midwest Studies Initiative

Globally, geographic mobility is increasing. A recent UN Development Program report goes so far as to call for even more migration. Ironically, Joel Kotkin sees a countertrend emerging in the United States:

Our less mobile nature is already reshaping the corporate world. The kind of corporate nomadism described in Peter Kilborn's recent book, Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s Rootless Professional Class, in which families relocate every couple of years so the breadwinner can reach the next rung on the managerial ladder, will become less common in years ahead. A smaller cadre of corporate executives may still move from place to place, but surveys reveal many executives are now unwilling to move even for a good promotion. Why? Family and technology are two key factors working against nomadism, in the workplace and elsewhere.

I mention Joel's analysis because it provides another perspective on the Midwest Studies Initiative:

One of the greatest challenges the region faces — and one the Midwest Studies Initiative is specifically designed to combat — is “brain drain,” or young adults born, raised and educated in the area who then move somewhere else. Ditzler said too often students are encouraged to work and study hard so they can get into college and use their education as “a ticket out of town.”

In the context of the UNDP report, the initiative would be dead before it started. But given Kotkin's new geography, the effort makes perfect sense. Thanks to the Great Recession, we should rethink our assumptions about globalization. This crisis of trust could break the chains of global production. We recoil from scalable algorithms and retreat to parochial networks that would shield us from turbulent outside forces.

We would be foolish if we thought the pendulum was simply swinging in the other direction. The new feudalism will come at great cost. Which places will be able to do business with the BRIC countries? Rust Belt ascendant.

Burgh Energy Report

The low price of natural gas somewhat clouds its future economic impact on the Pittsburgh region. I've struggled to reconcile all the boom talk with the stubborn supply glut. The key is understanding production costs. The Marcellus Shale might be the cheapest play in the United States with a break even price of just $3.74. The futures market portends profitable drilling in the pipeline. When and if demand increases, the Marcellus will be first in line for exploitation.

The extraction technology is driving the natural gas industry and Pittsburgh is at the center of this new energy landscape. We're going through a global restructuring, as this New York Times article details:

Italian and Norwegian oil engineers and geologists have arrived in Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania to learn how to extract gas from layers of a black rock called shale. Companies are leasing huge tracts of land across Europe for exploration. And oil executives are gathering rocks and scrutinizing Asian and North African geological maps in search of other fields.

The global drilling rush is still in its early stages. But energy analysts are already predicting that shale could reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. They said they believed that gas reserves in many countries could increase over the next two decades, comparable with the 40 percent increase in the United States in recent years.

“It’s a breakout play that is going to identify gigantic resources around the world,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University. “That will change the geopolitics of natural gas.”

There's plenty of room for natural gas to take up a greater proportion of the global energy portfolio. The smart money is on a shift in infrastructure with more activity and people dependent upon this resource. But even with an increase in demand, it looks like supply will be able to stay a step or two ahead.

What an exciting time for energy analysts. What an exciting time for Pittsburgh.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Lifeboat Named Diaspora

I thought I would take a stab at the article that Chris Briem found. It concerns the Burgh Diaspora. The key passage:

There are three kinds of people who leave their hometowns as adults. There are those seeking opportunity, taking the best job wherever it lands them. There are those that seem to inspire so many Hollywood stories: young people convinced their dreams are too big for the towns where they were born and determined to "get out." And there are those who leave by force.

I'll start with an academic perspective. Push and pull factors are two forces of migration. The term "refugee" refers to a disaster (natural or unnatural) which pushes people out of their homes. When I criticize brain drain initiatives, I'm thinking about the pull of a global city. Most of my family would probably still live in Erie if economic forces hadn't pushed almost all of them to places such as Charlotte. However, "cool cities" aren't designed to deal with this problem and the lure of greener grass doesn't engender a loyal diaspora. We're spending a lot of time and money chasing people who don't want to stay.

I could frame this dichotomy as Mark Cuban (Pull) versus Mike DeCourcy (Push). Technically, both are members of the Burgh Diaspora. But people like DeCourcy (economic refugees) are the ones to network or help boomerang back home. Simple out-migration does not a diaspora make.

I wasn't sure if I had anything useful or interesting to say about DeCourcy's piece. As I've meandered my way through this post, I think I have a better understanding of what makes the Burgh Diaspora so special and why Steeler Nation appears to be so prolific. The unique demographics tell the story. An entire generation was lost, an entire generation of refugees.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Rust Belt Chic: Thursdays in Cleveland

If I had to name one band to represent Generation X suburban America, then I would choose Talking Heads. In that regard, David Byrne as Rust Belt Chic connoisseur is no surprise:

“I found myself riding through vast vacant lots, covered over with grasses and some filled with rubble. Once in a while there was evidence of some habitation, but mostly it was a postapocalyptic landscape at its finest. One of the best and most memorable bike rides I’ve ever taken.”

Can you guess the city? Byrne also has some nice words for Pittsburgh. (Hat tip Pop City) I recommend reading his blog post about a recent trip to Cleveland:

I was tipped via an e-mail sent by a man named Tim Rossiter to my office. Tim wrote: “I've got to tell you about a special Cleveland treasure, Glenn Schwartz. Glenn started the James Gang in the 60s, then moved to California and was in the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. He flipped out soon afterward and was in religious communities. He's had a rough life and is tortured and crazy…Now Glenn is 67 years old and plays in a blues trio for free late every Thursday at a small bar called Major Hooples. There are typically 20-30 people there and he is jaw-droppingly amazing to see. His playing is like electric bolts straight from his psyche. He jumps off his amp and plays guitar with his teeth. And he often preaches fire and brimstone between songs. It's something very special and you won't see anything like it except on Thursdays in Cleveland.”

Well, Tim didn’t exaggerate. The place was a low-key little dive and at one end, not even on a stage, was Glenn, his brother and a drummer, all playing at full volume.

Sure enough, between amazing and inventive Hendrix-like solos, he would admonish the audience and prophesize “blood on the moon and War in America.” He may have lost his mind but his fingers are firing on all cylinders.

The bartender told Natalie that if you wanted him to stop playing you just had to dance. Well, see for yourself. Apologies for the mostly lousy sound quality; Glenn’s playing deserves better, but you’ll get the idea. As Tim said, only in Cleveland.

I first became aware of Byrne's love for shrinking cities in the magazine Pittsburgh Quarterly. The murals in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale captured his imagination:

The murals are a vivid mix of religious/cultural themes and commentary depicting the struggles of Croatians in America. Croatian immigrant Maxo Vanka painted them on the church's walls and ceilings between 1937 and 1941, and the unorthodox work represents his views on war and the toll of industrialism. At the time, Vanka said, “These murals are my contribution to America.”

When musician David Byrne of The Talking Heads saw them, he called the murals “spectacular” and called Vanka “The Diego Rivera of Pittsburgh.”

I tucked that reference in the back of my mind and I'd bet it has informed my thinking about the appeal of Rust Belt Chic to Generation X. Reading Byrne's Ruin Porn Tales (great title for a book) reminds me of Anthony Bourdain's celebration of Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo. It is the best and worst of geographic fetishism. It smells of post-colonial exploitation. Most importantly, it is a wonder to behold. The love for these cities is sincere and invokes a passion that might energize a new American urban economy.

America Will Build No More Great Cities

Bloggers blog for different reasons. I'm looking for a good conversation and I've found one with Aaron Renn about Charlotte. However, our exchange has been preempted by Jon Talton:

Now Wachovia is gone, a victim of the greed and bad bets of its executives. Bank of America has been badly wounded in the banking mess, particularly its acquisition of Merrill Lynch. Now CEO Ken Lewis has suddenly announced his resignation with no succession plan. A bully who pushed out talent that intimidated him, Lewis has done further damage to the nation’s largest bank. Worse, he didn’t share McColl’s deeply personal passion to build Charlotte as a great city, yet he was the last major bank official with a tie to the city. It will be very hard for BofA to avoid the gravitational pull of New York as the capital of America’s capital markets. A successor could likely begin a slow — or fast — move of the headquarters north. This pressure will only be intensified by the consolidation and restructuring going on in finance now.

Read the entire post. The juxtaposition of Chicago and Charlotte is strikingly similar to what Aaron has written. Charlotte could have been a great city. Instead, it is a symbol of America's waning global hegemony.

The other thread in Talton's piece is something I could have written. America's urban frontier is closed. That said, I don't appreciate the geographic fetishism:

Real cities — with high concentration of population, walkable neighborhoods, transit, lovely civic design, high quality of life and numerous assets — will have a much better future in a world of expensive energy, global competition for talent and capital, and the increasing stresses and costs from sprawl’s environmental and social degradation.

Europe is enhancing its cities while Asia is building new ones. America is frozen in place.

Real cities? Everywhere else gets it, but America doesn't? That kind of hyperbole reminds me of 1991 in the United States. Hegemonic decline was all the rage. I vividly recall Peter Taylor trying to assure his audience at the University of Colorado that the fall of empire didn't signal the end of days. He used the United Kingdom as an example. But folks weren't listening. We were doomed, frozen in place as the rest of the world raced passed us.

During this global reset, a new kind of bold ambition must emerge. I see this energy in Youngstown, a city that those in Europe surely appreciate. The Sun Belt and California are testament to our ability to rise out of the 1991 recession. The decade of the 1990s was the golden age of sprawl. Looking forward, the upcoming decade will celebrate the recycled city. The urban frontier is shifting. Sorry, Charlotte.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pierogy Pocket of America

I enjoy thinking about regions and what might serve as the foundation for trust. Regional identity formation is critical to economic development. (See Lisbon Treaty) Initiatives such as the Tech Belt and Great Lakes Economic struggle to overcome entrenched parochial attitudes and unleash the growth these shrinking cities desperately need. The underlying cultural geography must resonate with most residents:

Yes, we sit squarely in the Pennsylvania company's "Pierogy Pocket of America," a band that sweeps from Illinois east to the Atlantic Ocean, with most of Ohio in the middle.

The Cleveland and Akron market consumes - gulp - 850,000 pounds of the product each year, putting it at seventh place in the company's top-10 list of metropolitan areas. Pittsburgh is first, followed by Harrisburg/Scranton and Philadelphia (all in Pennsylvania). Next are Albany (N.Y.), Buffalo/Rochester (N.Y.) and Hartford/Springfield (Conn.). And then us.

The Pierogy Cradle is somewhat whimsical, but very real. I think it does a very good job of outlining the popular conception of the Rust Belt. I've noticed that Eastern Pierogyland is weathering the recession relatively well:

Unassuming, historically low-growth markets have headed in the other direction. Rochester, New York, which was 89th two years ago, now ranks 21st. Rochester has lost 1.7 percent of its jobs during the past year, leading to an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent. (Both figures seem positively sunny when compared to Riverside-San Bernardino’s 7.5 percent loss and 13.7 percent unemployment.)

Other sharp upswings are 67 places by New Haven, Connecticut (from 92nd in 2007 to 25th now), 64 places by Columbus (from 90th to 26th) and 57 places by Syracuse, New York (from 85th to 28th).

Pittsburgh also made a similar leap in the rankings. The region of my childhood might be better off than it has during my entire lifetime (40 years). Rust Belt Generation X is ready to return to the homeland. We want to be closer to our family, our roots. We also represent the bulk of native entrepreneurial energy. We've built up the Sun Belt with a hand in the blossoming of the Interior West and the Pacific Northwest.

Up next, the Pierogy Pocket of America.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Education Geography

Related to yesterday's post (I'll make the connection later), Edward Glaeser reviews the case of Argentina. The lack of wealth growth in that country over the last century is almost unbelievable. Glaeser explains the outlier as the result meager investment in human capital. That lesson has become the mantra of US mayors everywhere, including the one in Philadelphia:

ALMOST every time I interview Mayor Nutter on the issues du jour on my radio program, we swerve into an update on his vision of a Philadelphia with a greatly increased college-educated population. It's obvious that education is not just policy for the mayor, it's a passion.

Some call this agenda elitist. Others attack it as a frill with all the problems the city has. I think it's about time we address the dirty little secret that Philadelphia has one of the lowest college-graduate levels for those over 25 of any major U.S. city.

This problem not only stifles many new businesses from considering Philadelphia, but I think it even degrades the overall level of understanding of issues like the raging health-care debate.

According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, Philadelphia ranks only 92 out of the top 100 U.S. cities in those over-25s who have a degree, with only about 20 percent of Philadelphians having one.

In Seattle, 53 percent have one. In Oakland, Calif., it's 34 percent. Yes, Oakland. As if that weren't bad enough, in Pittsburgh, it's 32 percent. That's no typo.

I love the jab at Philly pride. Behind Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh? As I wrote over at New Geography, Pittsburgh has been well ahead of the curve in educational attainment as an economic development strategy. Only now are the dividends becoming obvious.

The link to yesterday's post about Pittsburgh's unique demography and the ticking talent time bomb, the region has more brains than most realize. From Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile):

Pittsburgh has natural population decrease, indicating a more elderly and thus likely less productive population. This might account for its lower GDP per capita score and the very high increase in it (capita is decreasing with natural decrease).

Aaron is merely generating hypotheses and his line of thinking makes sense. However, as Glaeser reminds us, the key correlation is with educational attainment. Since 1969, Pittsburgh's income per capita and educational attainment out-perform its Midwestern cohort. The exodus of the early 1980s scattered this talent all over the country. More importantly, it set the stage for Pittsburgh's unique natural decline.

Brookings recently issued a report which identifies an interesting Rust Belt trend:

Finally, areas in the long-declining manufacturing regions surrounding the Great Lakes, such as Pittsburgh, continue to experience difficulty in attracting many and retaining many college graduates (Figure 6-1). Their rates of educational attainment continue to rise due to aging of their populations, but many are seeking to re-invent themselves and their economies more deliberately by retaining their “homegrown” college graduates, and attracting both high- and low-skilled immigrants.

What this means is that as the natural decline progresses, it will reveal a more educated population. This will occur more dramatically in Pittsburgh than anywhere else. Pittsburgh is losing the less educated and what little in-migration is happening tends to be highly educated. All the while, increase in GDP per capita will continue to out-pace similar cities. Already emerging is a relatively younger, smart city ready to receive more talent. Well, as I wrote yesterday, not quite ready.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Skills Shortage Costs

With Mike Madison poised to take out his crystal ball and David Murdoch trying to rally the region around the need for talent, I'll take a look at one of the drags on India's economic growth. Even the best development schemes are only as good as the available labor pool. India suffers from a lack of infrastructure. But the real problem is finding the right people to build it:

India’s engineering graduates are frequently lured into better paid jobs in computer science, information technology and financial services. Many fail to find suitable jobs among India’s handful of big construction companies. Moreover, the family-owned nature of most of the medium-sized construction firms serves as an impediment to ambitious young civil engineers.

The warning comes as the Congress party-led government is planning $100bn investments in infrastructure over the next three years. Some estimates suggest that spending on infrastructure needs to rise from 4.6 per cent to 8 per cent of gross domestic product. It also comes as New Delhi, the country’s capital, is struggling to improve its sporting and transport infrastructure ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Games.

The World Bank singled out road building as a sector where skills shortages were particularly acute against a backdrop of falling foreign investment. Lack of skills threatens to retard the aggressive push to improve the national road network by Kamal Nath, the road transport and highways minister, who has promised to build 20km of road a day.

The government is ready to do whatever is necessary and the money is ready to be spent. Without workers, not enough can be built to sustain India's pace of economic growth. India might try to import civil engineers, but that would put even a greater squeeze on an already tight global talent market.

Nova Scotia (Canada) has a similar issue, albeit of a different demographic nature. The aging workforce is the basis for dire predictions of acute talent shortages across the board. Pittsburgh is in the same boat. Meanwhile, the executive editor of the Post-Gazette continues to fret over brain drain. He ought to read his own newspaper. There will be a massive shortfall of skilled labor and local supply won't be able to keep pace. Not even close.

The federal government is ready and willing to spend money on innovation clusters such as advanced energy. But who will start these companies? Where is the talent? Pittsburgh is far from shovel-ready.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Rust Belt Landscape And Memory

Ruin porn or Rust Belt chic? Last week, Rust Wire served up a great topic for discussion. The issue is the coverage of urban decay. The stereotypes of shrinking cities are obvious. The cropping of images (i.e. "ruin porn") creates a mythical landscape devoid of context. This perspective is recycled in one story after another. Casualties include places such as Ann Arbor. The entire state of Michigan is cast as urban rabbit butchers and war-torn buildings. The result is a thriving, entrepreneurial college town that can't attract talent.

Negative stereotypes are only part of the problem. The fetishism of urban frontier, something I regularly invoke, is also critiqued. A useful icon for this local/outsider tension is Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. Ruin porn in Northampton:

Leone hopes that Fetterman's talk will spark students' interest in the Rust Belt and inspire some students to procure Praxis internships in Braddock. Judging by student reactions to the talk, this partnership seems likely.

"I see it as a call to a kind of activism we haven't seen much of in our privileged environment at Smith," Leone said. She is confident students will take up the cause. "They are an activist bunch," she said.

Braddock is portrayed as the playground for "privileged" anti-globalization forces. The resistance to the idea of farming the urban prairie is reminiscent of the neo-Marxist invective against gentrification or the post-colonial mocking of the First World valorization of Che Guevara. Go play out your vision of utopia somewhere else and stop subverting the locals.

Is there a social justice of landscape representation?

All of the above geographies are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just because I'm an Erie native doesn't mean my imagined Rust Belt has authority over that of a cosmopolite living in Notting Hill. There's a lot of hand-wringing over authenticity. What is the real Braddock? Where can one find the essence of Detroit?

Artists, not journalists, are in a better position to handle such questions. The "truth" about the Rust Belt is subjective. In Buffalo:

"We thought they would laugh. But they didn't," Spector said of the ArcelorMittal management's reaction to her request for access. "They all thought there was this beauty in their workplace that they wanted to show us and share with us and that they felt was important. And it obviously energized their lives to think somebody would be interested in it."

Shortly after her arrival, Calame decided to trace a dilapidated wading pool in Buffalo's old First Ward, as well as sections of the Albright-Knox parking lot. In terms of scope, the residency and year of studio work that followed, Calame said, was her biggest project yet.

Spector stressed the educational potential of the show — about the conceptual challenges of the art itself and in terms of what it can reveal about the history and landscape of Western New York.

"From an educational point of view, the connection of art and the community is a really natural one," Spector said. "The expression and the creativity that goes along with art are the kinds of skills that people need to have good lives. They need to, I think, look at something beyond what's right in front of your nose."

I don't expect to find an accurate portrayal of a community in a newspaper or magazine. There are many threads to follow and I don't think an AP photographer can capture all the nuances. Is it fair that a Harvard educated white male from York, PA gets to speak for Braddock? The media obsession with Fetterman raises all of the same concerns about ruin porn and artists could shed some light on that.

In the past month alone, the plant’s been used by the New York Times, the British Daily Mirror, and the Polish Auto Motor as a visual for stories it has no concrete connection to other than occupying the same city. The Packard also shows up twice in the same Time photo spread from December, although the second picture is just captioned with the street address to make it look like their photographer visited more than three sites.

Here’s the bummer: To get a nice, wide westerly view of the building complex you have to go into the adjacent cemetery. On the outer path at the edge of the plots there’s a large, jarringly ugly sign warning visitors to lock their cars and be alert for muggers. Next to this, on my visit, there was a haphazard stack of concrete grave liners sprinkled with dirt near an idling front-end loader whose front end was loaded with topsoil and plastic flowers.

There are families of white folk who fled Detroit for the suburbs in the 60s who have now become so terrified of visiting the city that they’re willing to disinter their dead loved ones and rebury them in their current neighborhoods. And it’s not just one or two oddballs doing this—more than 1,000 bodies have been exhumed and moved since 2002. It’s a full-blown trend.

What a powerful image of a very real suburban fear. That dramatic anecdote captures my own urban anxieties. Such geographic abstractions define who we are and make our behavior predictable. Art can challenge these assumptions and allow us to see the world in a new way. As for journalists, all the positive or fair stories in the world won't do much to change our perspective. The onus is on the reader. Passive consumption of media is the problem, not the cropping of pictures.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Charlotte Bust

Putting aside my Schadenfreude, the rise and fall of Charlotte is fascinating. Much of my Erie clan moved to this region during the great Rust Belt exodus. I'm familiar with the spectacular growth there. My hypothesis is that this city benefited from a greenfield-like development and that the legacy costs of the boom would eventually catch up with it. Some indication that I'm correct:

I moved to Charlotte right in the middle of its Golden Age. Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield two local good old boys had built not one but 2 international banking empires in the same town and it looked like there was no stopping them from becoming even bigger. Charlotte was calling itself the 2nd largest financial center in the US, second only to New York City. Most of the locals were reaping the benefits of the large dividends from Nations Bank and First Union. If you didn't work for one of the 2 banks you owned a good chunk of the stock.

They both endorsed a brand new, young and charismatic mayor named Pat McCory and the 3 together got funding for ever thing Charlotte needed to be a great city. We were getting mass transit, the downtown was bringing back people after dark to a football stadium, new arena, dining and entertainment venues. The Arts & Science Council and United Way were receiving full funding from everyone. The local joke was that the official bird of Charlotte was the Building Crane. They were sighted all over town, in flocks. ...

... Ken Thompson wasn't replaced with an insider and now that Ken Lewis is leaving the BofA board is also looking for an outsider. Charlotte has always had a fear of outsiders. "You aren't a native Charlottean are you?" was the first question a new neighbor was always asked. The mayor ran an ill-fated campaign for Governor so the last of the Charlotte Trinity is gone. Charlotte is a ship without a captain.

The popular theory is that local tolerance lends itself to economic growth. I've been the outsider in a lot of American boomtowns. Too much is made of the parochial Rust Belt. I read about brain drain anxiety in Boston and in the Front Range of Colorado. The running joke while I was visiting Youngstown is that returning Rust Belt refugees would be greeted with the epithet of carpetbagger. Charlotte wasn't particularly welcoming to outsiders. You can ask my relatives.

The fuel for Charlotte's growth was the ability of the triumvirate to do just about anything it wanted. There weren't any political legacy costs. This is the China strategy for city building. This is the Texas advantage, a state with seemingly endless frontier spaces. I'm looking for the same political geography developing in the Rust Belt. Detroit might get there. But I've found it in full flower in Youngstown.