Friday, July 20, 2007

Root Shock Diaspora

The shrinking city experiment that is Youngstown is back in the news, with some blog reactions: Here, here, and here (which links to a different story about Youngstown's embrace of shrinkage). And while I'm trolling the Youngstown blog echo, check out this post about a grassroots report on Brain Gain: Mahoning Valley.

There are obvious similarities between Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Shrinking cities can learn a great deal from each other. However, I want explore some of the differences that demand context for any policy prescription. I've hypothesized that the root shock in Youngstown was much more traumatic than what Pittsburgh experienced, which in turn cleared the way for policy innovations such as strategic shrinking.

Not to under-appreciate the exodus of human capital from Pittsburgh, particularly the African-American community, but Pittsburgh's political infrastructure remains largely intact. Compare Pittsburgh's plight to Cumberland's abrupt economic transformation:

Then came Nov. 22, 1986.

“The impact of this constitutes the single-worst economic news in the county’s history,” said Arthur T. Bond, then a county commissioner and now the mayor of Frostburg. Bond’s statement came shortly after Kelly President Clifford Johnson announced on Thanksgiving weekend of 1986 that the plant would close. Many local people still call it Black Friday. Another commissioner, Francis Philpot, hearkened back more than 50 years, likening the situation to the Great Depression.

Delegate Cas Taylor, who would go on to become Speaker of the House in the Maryland General Assembly, said, “By necessity, people are going to be leaving this community and the shock wave throughout the educational system, the health system, the retail system, is going to change permanently the community.”

The closing of the Kelly-Springfield tire plant decimated Cumberland. The surprising part of Cumberland's tale of woe is the small number of workers who decided to relocate to Kelly's operations in Fayetteville, NC in order to maintain employment. A lot of the human capital remained in the region, which kept alive the dream that something akin to Kelly would some day return to Cumberland.

During the 1980s, Pittsburgh's economy was much more diversified than Cumberland's allowing enough people to stay in the area and retain a strong link to the past, resulting in our Janus-faced approach to development. Whereas Youngstown is primarily looking forward with few (if any) hoping to regain historical glory. The article about Black Friday in Cumberland seems to indicate that the people there are stuck in time. If you thought Pittsburgh's collapse was dramatic, I suggest visiting Cumberland, MD.

No comments: