Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rust Belt Mythos

I say "New Jersey", you say ...

"The idea of tract housing, the idea of cookie-cutter houses on nondescript lawns — all of that is associated with Jersey, which isn’t quite fair," says Christopher Sharrett, professor of communication and film at Seton Hall University. "It’s become this symbol of the conformity of American life, of dead ends." ...

... "The state is seen as a place where there are really no prospects for young people," Sharrett says. "It’s this kind of perpetual hangout — nothing is ever actually done."

Anthony Bourdain did a show about his home state. Richard Florida is a Jersey boy. All of the above help to form the dominant landscape we all take for granted. Doesn't Sharrett's New Jersey remind you of the antithesis of the Creative Class utopia?

Bourdain ends up challenging his own conceptions of home. In that episode of "No Reservations" we see the mythical and the real New Jersey. The mythical geography is what matters, despite the tasty artisan cheese and hills big enough to support a ski area. The exceptions do not define the regional rule.

That's the trouble with regional thinking. All places get glossed over with the same broad brush strokes. If you are mulling over an investment in place-making, then you best pay attention. People aren't pulling up stakes and moving to the hidden New Jersey or the secret Detroit. (At least, that's my guess.)

Our sense of place is full of misunderstandings because our regional abstractions are tied to yesterday's economy. We give too much weight to the political context. Thus all the head scratching about Hamilton:

Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation, said concentration of poverty affects both social and health outcomes for a neighbourhood.

"Poverty's a bad thing anywhere in the community," said Cooke, the former regional chairman of Hamilton-Wentworth, "but when we put a lot of people in a small geographic area, all of whom have high needs and limited resources, it's a recipe for everyone to spiral downwards." ...

... Cooke said that Hamilton's demographics more closely resemble a large U.S. rust-belt city than comparable Canadian cities.

"If you look at places like Buffalo or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Youngstown, where there were heavy job losses in manufacturing and steel 30 or 40 years ago and the decimation of the middle class, I think you would see similar patterns," said Cooke.

Hamilton's industrial legacy matters much more than its Canadian location. One can find the same story all around the world, even in the Sun Belt. As Bourdain reveals, there's ruin porn in New Jersey. Does that make it a Rust Belt state?

Infamously, Bourdain includes Baltimore in his Rust Belt urban tour. The controversy is about the limits of a contiguous region. It doesn't concern Baltimore's Rust Belt credentials. Nor does it weigh the benefits of proximity:

Proximity to a dynamic economy is also a means to success. Location in the northeastern corridor, for instance, is quite lucrative, and a number of decaying industrial towns that might otherwise have met a Detroit-like fate are enjoying economic revivals thanks to the strength of the broader NEC economy.

Celebrating Rust Belt Chic Baltimore is like having an Appalachian festival in downtown Pittsburgh. The regional association isn't appreciated. To the extent that Pittsburgh is the other side of Appalachia is a moot point.

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