Friday, December 23, 2011

Ironic Urbanity Of Iowa

Iowa is urban, not rural. But the dominant geographic stereotype won't go away. The tale of the tape:

More than 70 per cent of Iowans live in urban areas, according to the most recent census, and farming represents less than 6 per cent of the state’s gross domestic product – small compared to the 17 per cent accounted for by manufacturing or the 14 per cent produced by the financial and insurance sectors.

In the book "Hollowing Out the Middle", the outmigration from small town Iowa is conflated with statewide brain drain. The most substantial threat to rural Iowa is urban Iowa, not Chicago. The most substantial threat to urban Pittsburgh is suburban Pittsburgh, not the Sun Belt. The book reinforces the dominant rural stereotype. It hurts Iowa, both rural and urban.

Iowa is undergoing noteworthy urban renewal. The small towns might be struggling. That's not the big story:

Davenport, the largest of the “Quad Cities” that straddle the Mississippi River marking the Illinois-Iowa border, about 175 miles west of Chicago, is a good vantage point from which to survey the state’s economy. Urban and industrial, it is representative of the reality behind the state’s cornfield image. ...

... Bill Gluba, Davenport’s Democratic mayor, says the city also learnt from the 1980s crisis the need to diversify its economy: other big local employers include Genesis, a healthcare provider, and Kraft, which has a meat-processing plant in the city.

These factors have helped Davenport escape the brunt of the recession. Its unemployment rate is 6.7 per cent. By contrast, the unemployment rate in nearby Rockford, Illinois – another former manufacturing hub – is 11.9 per cent.

Urban Iowa is thriving and it exerts a strong pull on the surrounding hinterlands. The state needs more talent and would like to draw from a deeper pool. But Iowa is rural and no one wants to live there.

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