Monday, April 19, 2010

Steampunk Geography

Richard Longworth has a new post up that provides a nice summary of important urban bloggers whom Midwesterners should be reading. It reads like an annotated bibliography with a social media twist. One of the bloggers meriting mention is Ryan Avent. The Bellows is cited. But I prefer Avent's day job, Free Exchange. Among today's suggested economic readings is a talk Paul Krugman gave at the Association of American Geographers Conference in Washington, DC:

Rereading Geography and Trade, I realize that it has something of a retro – one might almost say steampunk – feel. I lovingly described the origins of the Dalton carpet cluster, which still exists but is hardly the cutting edge of economic change. I delightedly described the Bulletin on localization of industry in the 1900 Census, with its descriptions and histories of the concentrations of underwear in Cohoes, costume jewelry in Providence, detachable collars and cuffs in Troy, gloves in Gloverville, pencils from Pennsylvania, and tents from Tennessee. (OK, I got a little carried away there – but up through Gloversville it‟s accurate).

The mere mention of Cohoes got my cognitive juices flowing. Gloversville is close to where I spent the bulk of my childhood. And I have more memories of Troy, New York than I care to recount. There are an absurd number of cities in the Rust Belt and Krugman explains why.

Krugman takes that landscape and then leaps to today to what I would call "Cohoes, China". The point being is that the emerging economies functionally the same despite the different eras. The Manufacturing Belt up and moved to coastal China.

As for the United States:

Compare Pittsburgh in 1950 with Atlanta today; one was a steel city, the other is a … what? In general, I would doubt that many people – even residents – could identify the export base of most major metropolitan areas other than New York, where financial services are the obvious driver. To some extent this lack of obvious differentiation reflects a rising share of non-traded services in employment, so that most people in every metropolitan area are doing the same things – retail trade, local medical services, etc.. But it also presumably reflects a shift in the nature of local specialization. The word I guess I’d use for regional specialization in the contemporary United States (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in Europe) is “subtle.” There is still extensive specialization – there must be, or there wouldn’t be so much trade and travel between regions. But the specialization seems to involve relatively fine distinctions. There are medical equipment clusters in both Boston and Minneapolis; they‟re presumably not doing exactly the same things, but it would take close inspection to discern the differences.

If you haven't been following the conversation that Longworth celebrates, then you have a lot of catching up to do. To sum it up, there were a lot more differences between Cohoes and Gloversville than between today's Boston and Minneapolis. And, there are fewer differences between the yesteryear Cohoes and a coastal Chinese city today than between Boston and Minneapolis.

What about the New New Geography? Or, why might Cohoes continue to exist as a city?

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