Monday, October 12, 2009

Midwestern Metro Stars

Over the weekend, I reacquainted myself with the doings of Richard Longworth. If you are unfamiliar with Longworth, I consider him to be a Midwestern expert on economic globalization. Recently, Site Selection magazine caught up with Longworth and asked him to name some Midwestern cities that are heading in the right direction:

"Des Moines is doing quite well. The Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor really was hurt by the floods. But they have a lot of smart people doing everything right. I have every confidence they'll come back. The Cedar Valley region around Waterloo is pushing the right buttons."

I picked the blurb about Iowa because it dovetails nicely with a story about migration to Iowa City:

Why do these trouble-makers come, Vernon asks. As has been widely noted there is something of a push caused by large-scale changes in public housing in Chicago; but there is a pull as well. Iowa City is attractive. My impression -- judging from the low-income black residents from Chicago whom I have met -- is that there are many factors involved.

Some have come trying to make a better life for themselves, but especially for their children, trying to get away from a climate of violence and from schools unable to cope with their students' problems.

Some came because of the uneven distribution of housing subsidies between Chicago and Iowa City. Until recently it had been common knowledge that the wait for those eligible for federally funded housing subsidies in Chicago was counted in years. In Iowa City, the wait was counted in weeks or months.

So some have come because Iowa City offered a better chance at decent housing for someone working for $8 or $9 an hour.

The Chicago-to-Iowa City pipeline is an interesting case of network migration. But I want to highlight the value proposition, which is the greater purchasing power in communities with some sort of strong connection to high-cost Chicago. That my segue to the latest from Wendell Cox at New Geography:

The east coast regions ranked among the top 10 metropolitan areas in nominal income also were decimated by their high costs, with only Washington (which rose from 3rd to 2nd) and Boston (which fell from 4th to 6th) remaining. New York fell from 5th to 21st, Hartford from 7th to 13th and Philadelphia from 10th to 16th.

The two non-coastal metropolitan areas in the nominal top 10 remain, with Denver rising from to 3rd and Minneapolis-St. Paul rising from 9th to 4th.

It can be argued that Middle-America replaced the five metropolitan areas dropping out of the top ten. Houston, long one of the most disparaged metropolitan areas among urbanists, occupies the 5th position (compared to its 11th ranking in the nominal list). Three of the new entrants are confirmed members of the Rust Belt: Pittsburgh (7th), St. Louis (8th) and Milwaukee (9th). Finally, there is a new east coast entrant, blue-collar Baltimore (10th). ...

... Outside the top 10 most affluent metropolitan areas, there are other surprises. Urban planning favorite Portland ranks 40th, just above Buffalo. Rust Belt Cleveland ranks 17th, a few positions above New York. Kansas City, with its highly decentralized civic architecture, ranks 12th, just behind Seattle. Indianapolis (17th) is more affluent than Chicago (18th) and both are more affluent than New York.

Cox adjusts metro per capita income for purchasing power, figuring out how much $1 is worth in different American cities. An $8 or $9 per hour job goes a lot further in Iowa City than it does in Chicago. Via Aaron Renn's twitter feed, read about being young and jobless in New York City. Better to be young and jobless in Pittsburgh, if you get my drift.

Again, declining or flat population numbers tend to dominate our perception of place. Making a go of it in Big City is irrational. I'd characterize it as a dumb geographic mobility strategy. The hope is akin to winning the lottery. Better to cut your teeth in a minor league town and then make the big move.

As the knowledge about the opportunity landscape begins to diffuse, I expect more people to carefully weigh cost and benefit. This should bode well for many Midwestern cities, particularly the ones that Longworth lists as coping well with the forces of globalization.


Mark Arsenal said...

{{Better to cut your teeth in a minor league town and then make the big move.}}

Common wisdom, true, but ones mileage may vary. My personal story is that I up and moved to San Francisco, did very well, tried to up and move to Charlotte, and Charlotte chewed me up and spit me back to San Francisco, where I've been trying to escape for years now.

Where it's best to cut one's teeth has more to do with the individual's specific talents and connections than the cost of living (if that was in fact what your point in terms of warning against a jump straight from Beckley to NYC - I'm famously bad at interpreting you :P ).

I'm on the verge of trying escape SF for PGH now, and believe me, this move looks much more daunting than Fresno-to-SF ever did...

Jim Russell said...

Where it's best to cut one's teeth has more to do with the individual's specific talents and connections than the cost of living.

You bring up two big exceptions to rationale choice migration theory. An efficient network is another way to mitigate costs.

I'm not warning against the jump to Big City so much as I'm highlighting the opportunities in unexpected places.