Monday, January 25, 2010

Beware Of Sea Serpents

Before I rip off other people's blog posts, I'll tell my own story. There is (at least there was) a consignment store in Johnson, Vermont that I used to frequent back in the day. I bought a t-shirt there that screamed "Locals Only" with a picture of a junkyard dog doing its best to protect the parochial boundary. I thought the violent image hilarious. As a wayward twentysomething, I was all too familiar with such warnings. I appropriated the iconic statement as a form of irony and garnered many compliments for my attire among my peer group.

Instead of "Beware of Dog", I titled this blog post "Beware of Sea Serpents". I'm referring to another great piece of cartographic history published at Strange Maps:

This [map] shows the next best thing: dissuasive cartography. Its actual title is Cautious Cartography, as it appeared in the August 1940 issue of the Irish satirical magazine Dublin Opinion. The map purports to portray Ireland in as unappealing a perspective as possible. The text accompanying the map explains how cartography may be at least partly to blame for Europe’s misfortune:

Feeling that the present unrest in Europe may have been largely caused by the well-intended, but highly mistaken policy pursued by countries of boasting about their natural advantages and attractions, a policy which has had the not unnatural result of exciting the cupidity of other countries, our Grangegorman Cartographer has designed the above map of Ireland, which is calculated to discourage the inhabitants, much less strangers. The trouble is, he feels, that, even as depicted, the country still looks more attractive than the rest of Europe.

Locals Only.

Keeping outsiders at bay is as easy as flip-flopping the appropriately named Greenland and Iceland. But what if your town wants to attract newcomers? As Politics and Place reminds us, not so easily done:

I've been able to convince myself that I could live in a lot of places that many people would run away from (Baltimore, Detroit, Cincinnati, etc.). But in all honesty, I'm really not sure I could take a position in Dayton. The city is in a very awkward place, both geographically (sure it's only an hour and a half drive, but if you want to go carless that's not a whole lot of help to you), and population-wise (at around 150k, it isn't really able to offer the critical mass that I think a lot of young people are drawn to.

I understand that Dayton has great quality of life measures, but so do plenty of larger places. The articles on the subject in the local paper are a healthy rational understanding at the issue, but they don't completely get it. Yes, Dayton has universities and Wright-Patterson and all of the other things that cities talk about in glossy brochures, but it wasn't enough. There is something apparently missing in Dayton, some X factor that every city wants to have.

Transportation costs were high, and flights to and from the airport often required “multiple hops” for customers and employees. And attracting top talent was a struggle, he said. “We had a very difficult time recruiting people to live and work in Dayton.”

Most (perhaps all) Rust Belt cities have Dayton's problem. Richard Florida terms it the "means migration". Brains are pooling in a few select places, which is radically different from the United States of the 1970s. Once this path dependency is established (i.e. beware of sea serpents), it's hard to shake the reputation. That's why Ann Arbor suffers in the shadow of Detroit:

And despite Ann Arbor's educated work force, employers here find Michigan's reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.

At HandyLab, an Ann Arbor firm that makes a DNA-analysis device, Chief Executive Jeffrey Williams says he has had a hard time finding Ph.D.-level workers with highly specialized skills. His company, which has doubled to roughly 60 employees in the past year, has 10 job openings.

"It's definitely gotten much harder with all the stigma around Detroit," he says. "Somebody tries to pigeonhole us as Detroit, we say, 'No, it's Ann Arbor, it's a completely different environment.' "

I've discussed that anecdote before, but it deserves to be repeated. The Rust Belt is a victim of means migration. That's why I suggest the megaregion explore residual migration. If Ann Arbor is having trouble attracting talent, then what hope can we have for Dayton or Youngstown?

For most people, the mental map of the Rust Belt looks a lot like the Cautious Cartography of Ireland. I think this applies equally well to city living. Suburbanites imagine sea serpents swimming around in the urban core just as they might fear killer dogs on the loose along rural roads. Locals only, buyer beware.

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