Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rust Belt Chic Nomads

Over at The Urbanophile, I explain why I think Pittsburgh is a rising metro star. Few (if any) large cities can boast of such dramatic gains in educational attainment rates and prosperity (per capita income), particularly when you consider how little migration there has been to the area. Concerning that last bit, I think Pittsburgh is on the cusp of transforming into a hot destination. Brian O'Neill with injection of optimism:

Mr. Lidji e-mailed me last week because he was on his porch, alternately reading my book about Pittsburgh and conversing with neighbors, when he came to a passage that riled him. I'd written that perhaps Pittsburgh should "concede the twentysomethings to places like Austin, Seattle and New York" and concentrate on attracting people a little older, perhaps some of the ones who left in their 20s and are ready to come home and settle down.

I meant that not as a slight of twentysomethings, but because I thought Pittsburgh lacked the bright lights that Americans seek at an earlier age.

Either way, Mr. Lidji was having none of it.

"There is a disdain for young people in this town that is unfortunate coming from crotchety oldtimers, but unacceptable coming from anyone demanding change, such as yourself. You spend the last third of your book begging for progress and innovation, but toss off the most energetic decade of life as though God didn't imbue it with exactly those qualities.

I've taken the same position as O'Neill. I imagine urban neighborhoods teaming with talent that has left behind the twentysomething lifestyle. Instead of leaving the center of top-tier cities for the surrounding suburbs, I envision people choosing Pittsburgh proper. As Mr. Lidji puts it, that is selling short all the tremendous assets he sees on a daily basis.

After making the case for Pittsburgh, I'm inclined to agree. Rust Belt cities are emerging as the new "it" places to be. Using Detroit as a model, Joseph Wilson describes an aesthetic that has Generation Y clamoring for urban authenticity:

“Etsy raised $45 million in venture capital,” [Jules Pieri] says. “There’s a new normal in consumption patterns.” (The term “new normal” was first used in this way in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Nancy Koehn. The article analyzed the changing purchasing climate in the post-recession US.)

Koehn argues that consumers are now looking to give their hard-earned dollars to companies they trust, not just to the company with the cheapest offering. Consumers are also using their social networks to evaluate possible purchases. Networks will quickly ferret out a better product or more socially responsible company–online, the barriers between corporate messaging and consumer knowledge are starting to fall.

For entrepreneurs with good ideas, the start-up costs for businesses have never been lower. “That creates a real opportunity,” says Pieri. She adds, “People are not doing business in the same old ways. Each purchase is an act of citizenship.” In other words, it seems inventors would prefer to bypass the traditional distribution methods of corporate culture.

Choosing a place to live is a lot like purchasing a product or service. Relocation or return home is an act of citizenship. Ironically, this means the low cost of living (e.g. inexpensive real estate) isn't the draw. Instead, young adults want to be part of the resurrection of Braddock and indulge in Rust Belt Chic, something neither Portland (Oregon) nor Austin can muster.

However, most of America's urban frontier is disinterested in pitching the above brand. I'm not sure Pittsburgh finds the idea palatable. But Pittsburgh's relative economic strength makes it the default destination for Rust Belt Chic nomads. All the city has to do is choose to market itself as such.

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