Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Geographic Triage

Ryan Avent and Alec MacGillis continue to discuss the excoriation of Richard Florida published in The American Prospect. I'm not interested in the debate about the Creative Class brand and how cities bought into the ideas. The heart of the controversy is whether or not we should let some places die. To what extent do we engage in geographic triage?

I'm reading two books right now that deal expressly with this issue. I bought "Hollowing Out The Middle" after Richard Longworth made the following comment:

This gets to his big question: Why should we care? [Aaron Renn is right] that, in my book, I painted a bleak picture of small-town and rural life and its probable future. This was descriptive, not prescriptive. Small towns like "Ellis" have a lot of strikes against them in this global society. Perhaps they will simply die out. So what?

For one thing, all these places are little civilizations unto themselves. All have value, recognized by most of us who left and cherished by those who stay. This is a human problem and can no more be shrugged off than we shrug off the condition of lives in inner city ghettos.

If we lose these little towns, we lose part of our Midwestern culture. Perhaps we will lose them, but the preservation of this culture seems worth the struggle.

I would retort that the fate of these rural towns isn't so much a question of whether or not we should save them, but one of whether or not we can. Avent is pointing out Florida's concession that this is a lost cause and then explains why this is a reasonable conclusion. The discussion then turns to how to best manage the decline.

Which brings to the other book occupying my thoughts, "The Paris of Appalachia". Author Brian O'Neill writes about Pittsburgh's shrinking city problem and contends that many of the neighborhoods (particularly the North Side where he lives) are worth salvaging, out-migration be damned. O'Neill answers the "so what" question roughly in the same way Longworth does. Should we put aside geographic triage on these grounds?

I've grappled with urban triage before, starting with the neighborhood stabilization program in Youngstown. To be blunt, Youngstown is strategically letting some of its neighborhoods die. Should we be doing the same thing at the national level? I'm imagining community death panels.

In essence, that's how Chicago rose to global prominence. It invested in the urban core and left the rest of the city to fend for itself. By and large, that worked.

China washes its hands of the cities with the highest legacy costs. We might be wise to follow their lead. Sorry, but your hometown won't make the globalization cut.

Richard Florida is staring at the same decisions concerning Ontario. The province hinterlands understand all too well what the "World is Spiky" means for their towns and cities. There might be a middle ground, but some communities and neighborhoods will be left for dead. Keep that in mind the next time Collegia or Next Generation Consulting comes round to your neck of the woods peddling salvation.


jenna said...

so, kill the poor, so to speak?

Jim Russell said...

I think "kill the weak" would be the more appropriate metaphor.

Mark Arsenal said...

A couple observations:

My personal touring of rural NC in the past few years tells me that many small, dying mill towns are staying alive (barely) due to massive replacement of the native population by Mexican and Central American immigrants. I've often thought of writing this pattern up into a policy narrative but haven't got around to it yet. Basically, rural NC reminds me of central California, with trees, these days - and that's a good thing. Without those immigrants those towns would be total pools of misery and dependency. They're not models of creative class wealth, but they actually have help wanted signs in windows, new shops and businesses (few with English signs) and some limited new opportunities for the native working-age populations that stayed around.

That's for the regional/national triage debate.

Second thought is the super-local, neighborhood-triage debate: Detroit might be the example to look to in the coming years. Most Americans, especially those in the region, have a 'let it die' attitude about the whole city. But there are still almost a million people in it, and probably at least a few hundred thousand jobs. How its residents rationally and sustainably shrink it is something I'm massively excited to witness in the coming years...

Jarrett at said...

Great post, and Mark's comment got me thinking back to my days working in Central Calfornia. Already then there were small towns that were mostly Hmong and one, Livingston, where the signs were mostly in Indic languages. Of course, there was work, bigger towns nearby, a food chain.

You can't save "culture" by conscious intervention. Culture lives, grows, changes, and dies. In southern Iowa, towns that I watched die are now, some of them, coming back as fun places for people from Des Moines to spend the weekend. The town survived because someone finally valued it, and maybe because they valued it as a signifier of a culture. But does that mean the culture survived?

Mark Arsenal said...


I guess I overlooked the whole concept of preserving 'culture'. I'm always personally more focused on preservation of things like architecture and historical information, which requires a local economy to maintain (or at least archive and expatriate). More importantly is preserving some economic service for native populations (even if they are all retirees or the underskilled; *especially* if they are all retirees or the underskilled), such as grocery stores and clinics and transit. Not to mention that a lower-skilled population can often provide such things as cheap home care.

Culture is best defined simply as 'the way things are'. I prefer to consider 'the things that are there'.

Mark said...

This article reminds me of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.

The idea that you can revitalize a completely decimated municipality seems ignorant of real economic policy. Do artists hire significant numbers of workers? Do they circulate money in numbers to revitalize a borough's economy? The answer to that ultimately is why Fetterman's and Richard Florida's ideas are doomed to failure.

jenna said...

Anecdotally, I come from a rather decimated area that is growing due to artisans. The artisans bring people into the area and some stay to economically add to the community and there are now artisan cheese businesses growing from decimated farming businesses. I mean now not only can they buy and drink in public but they now have a pizza shop--life is getting better!!!! The area I am speaking of is no longer dying (which it was for some time) but starting to thrive again and some of thisis due to the culture of the artisans. I would take partial issue with this.