Sunday, March 07, 2010

Mesofacts: Geographic Stereotypes

A little over a week ago, the Post-Gazette published a retrospective of Pittsburgh's most livable designation in 1985. That's how things looked from the top of Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac." How about the view from the bottom? Yuba City:

Many people hadn't even realized the region was an MSA, said Chuck Smith, Sutter County spokesman who worked as a reporter for the Appeal-Democrat in 1985. Yuba-Sutter had only crossed the 100,000 population threshold five years earlier in the U.S. Census.

"That was the first surprise for people — 'We're a metropolitan area?'" Smith said. "And the surprise for Marysville people was: 'And they're calling it Yuba City?'"

MSA names are based on the city with the largest population in the area, which was and still is Yuba City.

The ranking deeply insulted area residents, and on the 25th anniversary of the publication, bruised egos still remain when Rand McNally enters discussions. ...

... Many residents said the ranking system was flawed.

Just look at Pittsburgh, says Bill Fuller, who was working in the Yuba City administrator's office at the time. No logical ranking would place it as a superior place to live than other major areas, such as San Francisco or Seattle, he said.

Folks in Yuba-Sutter immediately dismissed the rankings because of the use of "Yuba City" to represent the entire region. Rand McNally didn't know their town at all. Again, the anger distinguishes between information and knowledge. Rankings are a poor proxy for sense of place. Thus the high value put on urban or regional branding.

However, the livability rankings should allow us to challenge geographic stereotypes. Bill Fuller's crack about Pittsburgh demonstrates that traditional perception trumps data analysis. Migration is illogical. This is good news for shrinking cities and rural towns. As anyone involved in marketing can tell you, subjective positions change all the time. However, those involved in civic branding don't seem to have a good grasp of geography. In that void are the rankings, which do little to change our mental maps.


The borough lies an easy six miles west of Pittsburgh. Its picture-perfect Main Street looks as though it has been lifted from a model railroad. And on a hill overlooking it all sits a landmark that townspeople hope will draw visitors to this hamlet of about 8,000, a population that because of forces of nature and industry is nearly a third less than its peak in the 1940s. ...

...The borough grew along with the steel mills, the last of which closed nearly 50 years ago.

"A lot of people left town," said Irene Sekelik, a volunteer at the Historical Society of Carnegie. "We're so close to downtown Pittsburgh . . . so I don't know what keeps people away."

Inside the society's first-floor exhibit area is an amazingly detailed model of Main Street, meant to resemble how the town looked in the 1930s and '40s. "It was just jammed with people," Sekelik said of the street's sidewalks. "It was a thriving time."

Today, fewer people walk those same paths, particularly after a devastating flood in 2004 forced some businesses to close. Still, Carnegie's boosters hold out hope for the years to come.

Some artists have moved to the area, Sekelik said, and Forbes thinks the revival at the library may serve as the "linchpin" to bring more visitors to town. In addition to the reopening of the Civil War room, this Presidents' Day weekend's festivities include a display of 100 photographs of Lincoln that belong to Pittsburgh photographer Norman Schumm. They range in date from 1847 to 1865 and were developed from a set of negatives from photojournalist and author Stefan Lorant.

Forbes envisions similar-themed weekends in the future, with events such as reenactments, lectures and concerts at the library's music hall. For now, though, I was happy to enjoy the quiet charms of Carnegie: Watching the snow swirl off beautiful houses, admiring the view of the library from below and walking slowly up Main Street.

Though it would like to be, Carnegie isn't on the radar. The Washington Post travel story makes the borough inviting, worth the trip for residents of Greater DC. Carnegie has strong assets, but is struggling to get onto the map. Journalism will help and Carnegie is lucky. Burgh expats exploring the move home will give it a chance.

1 comment:

nbguzna said...

What's really troubling, of course, is that Bill Fuller's argument is the same as it was 25 years ago. Even though Pittsburgh is objectively much better off, "San Francisco", "Seattle", and "Pittsburgh" still carry their same connotations.

And then there's this gem:
Jones' first husband was from No. 1-ranked Pittsburgh, and two years ago, her sons flew back with their father for a visit.

"When they came back, Steve, my older son, said, 'I'm so glad I grew up in California,'" Jones said.