Friday, February 22, 2008

Urban Identities and Diasporas

"Linking Pittsburghers far and wide" would seem to be a good idea, but to what end? Everyone is moving to Spikytown, where talent and globalization meet face-to-face. Pittsburgh and other shrinking cities will want a piece of that action. I think that networking an urban diaspora can help to develop a niche in the global economy, cultivating a few more spikes in the Rust Belt.

GLUE and Rust Belt Bloggers provide a forum for the exchange of ideas. What we are learning is that we share common problems and we might benefit from the experiences of others. I see the building of an urban diaspora network as a different sort of project, taking advantage of established patterns of migration (e.g. brain drain). My goal is to establish Pittsburgh as a springboard to the knowledge economy.

Local universities, namely Carnegie Mellon and Pitt, already enjoy a worldwide reputation for excellence in higher education. But alumni networks mainly benefit only members of a particular academic community. Furthermore, college graduates are fickle, even in Canada:

It is clear from this study that most foreign students do not even entertain the possibility of remaining in Canada after graduation. If the government's policy direction is to increase access of international graduates to the Canadian workforce, then a focused and well-communicated policy is the minimum required action. However, this move on its own would not necessarily produce a situation in which, let's say, over 50 per cent of international graduates would want to stay in this country. While the data show graduates are more likely to stay in Canada if they could, the fact remains that Canada is in direct competition with many other countries for the global talent pool of which international graduates as part. The choices international graduates (and domestic graduates, as well) make about where to live and work in the world has become more complicated and challenging than ever.

Pittsburgh needs more than opportunities for increased labor mobility, which is likely to be expressed as greater geographic mobility. Developing countries have long struggled with brain drain, but some manage their expatriates better than others. One result might be attracting more foreign direct investment. The Canadian example indicates that more and more foreign students are returning to the country of origin. The trend of boomerang migration is on the upswing.

But what makes me think that what works for nation-states will extend to cities? Making meaningful connections is difficult enough and the success of international diaspora networks may not apply to a domestic context. The way the world works is in a state of flux and diasporas challenge our dominant political geographies. Being a citizen of these United States doesn't mean what it once did:

Loyalties, meanwhile, are moving to transnational communities defined in many different ways: by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, and sexual orientation. These communities are replacing bonds that once connected people to the nation-state, with profound implications for the future of governance. The lessons of citizenship in the state may not translate to these new and resurgent forms of alternate community. Where the state once stood above other forms of associations as the polestar of individual identity, it will increasingly share the stage of human association, with enormous attendant challenges for decision makers and scholars alike.

The articulation of Pittsburgh-ness is a salient form of "alternate community." As Barbara Johnstone has argued, the Burgh Diaspora promotes the notion that Pittsburghese is a unique American dialect. In fact, three Rust Belt cities have the same potential to network their diasporas:

The Midland would not hold much interest to a person searching out accents were it not for three enclaves that have retained unique speech: St. Louis, Cincinnati and, in particular, Pittsburgh, which seems to be the Galapagos Islands of American dialect.

A shared culture, even if more myth than reality, is of great value in the global marketplace. I imagine Pittsburghers doing business with other Pittsburghers all over the world, while some of the more adventurous serve as economic ambassadors. The proximity rule doesn't bind the Diaspora. The same could be said for other shrinking cities and even the entire Rust Belt mega-region.

To keep this rambling wreck of a blog post going, I'll try to tie in the Post-Gazette's Pittsburgh 250 opinion pieces. The way forward is described as mining the past or looking within. Globalization has robbed Midwestern cities of its risk-takers. The spirit that built these great places has moved to Spikytown. Urban diaspora networks alone cannot fuel another renaissance. I hope GLUE and Rust Belt Bloggers will encourage more boomerang migration. And if the international migration of talent is any indication, Pittsburgh 300 will focus its celebration on how these post-industrial refugees rebuilt their city.

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