Thursday, May 13, 2010

Unnatural Amenities Migration

When spinning yarns about migration, I focus on my muse: Jess Trybus. Her story from the Post-Gazette:

But Ms. Trybus soon discovered she loved the business side of the entertainment industry, and after jobs at Drew Barrymore's production company Flower Films and at Alta Vista, she and her now-husband, fellow entrepreneur and Pittsburgh-native Anthony Lacenere, returned in 2002 in search of a "better quality of life."

As I'm fond of saying, Jess created her own boomerang opportunity. She's run through a number of brick walls in order to live in Pittsburgh. If you want to move back badly enough, then consider making your own job. Or, come work for Jess. Her company is hiring.

Aaron Renn has a similar muse (I don't know if he would call her that): Nikki Sutton. Her story from Aaron's keyboard:

Since it gave benefits to part time workers, Nikki also applied for a retail job at Starbucks. She was told there was such a backlog of applications it would likely be some time before she even got a call back. Yes, there appears to be a long waiting list for jobs at Starbucks in Portland.

After more than a year of this, she was lured back to Indianapolis by an actual job offer from a local architecture firm. After working there for some time, she launched her own firm, Level Interior. She’s also active as a model and fashion stylist. I’m personally very impressed with her work.

Aaron's point isn't that Nikki returned home and eventually became an entrepreneur. Indianapolis could use her talent. Portland, Oregon didn't have any room. I take away something different from the anecdote. Nikki wouldn't run through a brick wall to stay in Portland.

I'm rehashing old blog posts to shed some light on a great interview with the shrinking cities guru at Kent State University, Terry Schwarz. The journalist asking the questions is Gordon Young, who writes the great blog Flint Expatriates. The heart of the matter:

Job loss is what’s hurting these cities. People are not going to move to a city just because it has a good green space system. It’s an amenity and it will affect the decision, but you go to a place where you can work in a way that generates enough income that you can support yourself and your family. That’s why people choose a city. So we can make Cleveland heaven on earth with urban design strategies, but if there’s not something for people to do here, if there’s not a functioning economy, it’s all for nothing.

If there aren't enough jobs, then people such as Nikki Sutton will leave. It doesn't matter how cool or weird Portland is. To an extent, I agree. But I've come to think that all the carping about jobs is barking up the wrong tree. Reading Flint Expatriates (or any of the other fine Rust Belt writers), you know what people will endure to stay. Rarely do you encounter someone pushing through all the crap just to move to a shrinking city. But you probably know someone who lived in shoebox with 20 other people while holding down 3 part time jobs and 2 unpaid internships just to make a go of it in New York City.

The running joke in Boulder, Colorado is that most of the people bagging groceries have their doctorates. You can bet that there is a backlog of applicants at the local Starbucks. You'd have better luck in nearby Longmont (a wonderful example of an untapped geographic arbitrage opportunity). But that's not amenity rich Boulder. 80301 all the way.

I'm not trying to argue against the logic of fostering a functioning economy. Relatively high unemployment will spark an exodus. But the push factor is usually an acute crisis. Schwarz disagrees:

There are cities that experience dramatic ups and downs in response to the micro economies that impact them. Then there are cities that have had this long, slow meltdown. I met Robert Beauregard — one of the pioneers in the ways cities decline and respond to population loss — a few years ago. He used this phrase that years later still smarts. He called a few cities the perennial losers. He didn’t mean to be insulting. He was just pointing out that sometimes even as the economy of the nation grows, certain cities shrink. No matter what’s happening at the national and international level, there are cities that have persistently lost population and lost economic activity and become increasingly distressed. St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia…the cities of pain.

I don't buy it. Yes, the decline is over the course of many decades. The population decline. The tale about economic decline is a lot more complicated. Tracing the jobs, you'll find dramatic ups and downs in Detroit and Pittsburgh. I don't think the abstraction is accurate.

I link shrinking cities with each other via a sustained lack of inmigration and unmanageable legacy costs incurred when the population was much larger (and the city more globally prominent). The key policy variable is attraction. How do find and then help the people willing to do anything to move to your region?

1 comment:

Cat said...

Hm. Portland is too successful with talent. Boulder and Fort Collins do well too. Thus we may conclude that the secret to drawing talent is more breweries and bicycles. Sigh.