Saturday, August 30, 2008

Authentic Ohio

Either we will re-brand the Rust Belt or embrace its parochial authenticity. The suggested path depends on how one would characterize the perception of the Postindustrial Heartland. Some outsiders need an update. Others simply have no idea what goes on in flyover country:

I first got wind of this confusion in eighth grade, when my best friend moved from Dayton to Connecticut. What did her new classmates want to know about her? Whether she had lived near cows. (We encountered no heifers while rollerblading in her cul-de-sac.) When I arrived at Georgetown University from Ohio, several of my fellow freshmen remarked that I must have been "so glad to get out of there." One insinuated that she never would have expected someone from the Midwest to do well in Italian. (I wonder what she would have made of my high-school buddies who went to medical school.) By my sophomore year, I felt like lobbying the study-abroad office to supplement its programs in Paris, Cairo and Beijing with a junior year abroad in Columbus, Ohio's capital, which is also known as Cowtown.

Actually, I like the idea of a domestic study abroad program. In many ways, New York City is closer to Paris than it is to any city in Ohio. The central business districts halfway around the world are better known than other places within one's own country. This network of intimate geographic knowledge establishes lines of trust and facilitates business transactions of all kinds. This understanding is a strong argument against the re-brand the Rust Belt camp.

Re-branding the Rust Belt replaces one stereotype with another. The perception is still one of a homogeneous region (e.g. Richard Longworth's Midwest), an abstraction that will fail to generate a deeper appreciation of place. Each Midwestern state (however you would define it) has at least two regions. For that matter, I would expect that every state has a couple of identities that defy stereotyping. Large-scale myth making won't generate much, if any, economic activity.

I doubt there is any such place as authentic Ohio, but the author of the above article in the Washington Post has a lot to say about authentic Dayton. An idea I have is to map just how far outside of Dayton one could grow up and still subscribe to a shared experience that would allow for a deep connection in some Dayton Diaspora hot spot. My hypothesis is that the greater the industrial legacy, the smaller the region of diaspora identity. I've used this perspective to help identify the best potential for a successful urban diaspora network.

I've come to realize that charting the urban diaspora geography also outlines another opportunity: Rust Belt urban networks and more effective economic regionalization. I've studied the long distance exodus from places such as Pittsburgh, but I've mostly ignored intra-regional migration. Someone born in raised in Dayton probably doesn't have any better idea of what it is like in Youngstown than someone located in New York City who never lived in the Rust Belt. But there is substantial talent circulation between Rust Belt cities.

The Cleveburgh corridor is economically coherent because of all the human capital exchange going on between those cities along the line running from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. Now that we've identified this economic geography, the next step is to facilitate more inter-urban intimacy within the corridor (i.e. build lines of trust) and work on improving the mega-regional infrasture:

Five or six stops would be included in the rail service from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, including Youngstown and Warren. The high speed trains would travel at approximately 110 mph and could accommodate about 300 passengers, said Don Damron, ORDC passenger rail planning manager.

I think social media can be instrumental in building inter-urban networks. Come to PodCamp Pittsburgh in October to learn more.

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