Sunday, July 29, 2007

Omaha Diaspora

Via the CEOs for Cities blog, I read about how a group of Omaha cosmopolites transformed their hometown into a hotbed of creative activity. The opportunity to do the same is available for any other city, but this success story gets at the uniqueness of place and why one diaspora network would thrive where others fail:

The Internet has made it possible for people to pursue serious creative careers in a place like Nebraska, but also anywhere else. Why has it worked so weirdly well in Omaha? Beyond talent, it’s because the musicians have longstanding bonds to one another and the city. “We were all in it together,” [Saddle Creek indie music recording label founder Robb Nansel] explained, and “nobody wanted to be the first to throw in the towel.”

In short, Omaha’s cultural moment is all about the application of the great Midwestern bourgeois virtues — thrift, square dealing, humility, hard work — to bohemian artistic projects. On this, everyone agrees.

“People here do business on a handshake,” said Cary Tobin, the Bemis Center’s residency program director, who was “dying to get out of here” when she graduated from high school in 1988 but returned after living in Italy and Seattle for a decade. Sarah Wilson was the assistant music editor for Interview in 2005 when she met Tim Kasher (Cursive, the Good Life) in New York. He convinced her to come to Omaha with him to write her novel. “They are workaholics,” she says of the Saddle Creek musicians.

Pittsburgh could claim similar cultural attributes, as well as the assets of relatively inexpensive real estate to draw the LA and NYC creative refugees. The article doesn't make clear what is so distinctive about Omaha and why the city is emerging as a hotspot for alternative culture. Omaha is the next Austin. Why there as opposed to Pittsburgh?

I think the answer is Omaha's position as an economic, political, and social frontier landscape. Golden Era Omaha is dead and buried, paving the way for Renaissance Omaha. This frontier variable is how Pittsburgh falls well short of Omaha as a creative boomtown. However, I wouldn't call Pittsburgh a cultural backwater. Pittsburgh is relatively rich in such amenities, but the wealth ironically helps to hold the city back. In that regard, Pittsburgh is good enough.

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