Monday, January 09, 2012

Year Of The Rust Belt Reset

Yep, Portland is out and Pittsburgh is in. There is something magical about Appalachian Rust Belt cities. The New York Times lists 45 places to go in 2012:

25. Chattanooga, Tenn.
A city stages a comeback fueled by artists and retailers.

In 1969, Walter Cronkite famously called Chattanooga the “dirtiest” city in America. In recent years, though, it has undergone a dramatic overhaul with a radical gentrification plan and an aggressive citywide push to lure artists. In addition to a $120 million clean-up-and-invest 21st Century Waterfront Plan, an incentive program called Arts Move brings artists of all mediums into town; a yearly Southern arts fair called Four Bridges draws thousands each April; and several arts districts have been cultivated and nurtured.

On the heels of this artistic transformation has come the inevitable, yet not unwelcome, boutique boom in places like the recently restored Warehouse Row, a Civil War-era factory turned shopping center filled with local, upscale and artisanal goods.

Like Pittsburgh, Chattanooga's transformation happened long before anyone noticed. Here is an article from 1998 celebrating the makeover:

Who knew that Chattanooga would soon become as green as Peter Pan’s tights? The city can boast of a leaf-lined river walk along its redeveloped downtown, a freshwater aquarium where conservation is the byword, a free electric bus shuttle, the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, and plans for a zero-emissions eco-industrial park and a grass-roofed convention center. Vice President Al Gore said in 1995 that Chattanooga “has undergone the kind of transformation that needs to happen in our country as a whole.”

I suppose I could write that the positive press in the Times is long overdue. But researching the city's image turns up more than a few good words such as this piece in a 2003 issue of Next American City. Better to say that some people did notice. No one believed what they were reading. Chattanooga may be cleaner. But it ain't cool. I'm moving to Portland.

I blame mesofacts. Our impression of place is slower to change than economic development. And that's saying something. In fact, Mr. Mesofacts himself (Samuel Arbesman) recently penned a post for Atlantic Cities about the relationship between rankings and our perception of large metros:

Every region rates coastal cities high, with Denver the only inland city making the top five according to any region. On the flip side, all regions rate inland cities near the bottom, with only the Midwest including two cities from the coast – Houston and Los Angeles – in its bottom five.

Further, if we search for cities that yield significantly divergent opinions depending on the region that's rating it, certain cities jump out. Just for example, San Francisco shows distinct sentiment differences depending on the region doing the rating. Respondents in the South and Midwest have less favorable views of the Bay Area city than it enjoys in the Northeast and West.

While certain cities are positively viewed by all regions, each region has a better view of its own cities than those cities of other regions. The South likes southern cities, the West western cities, and so forth. The Midwest appears to be the most self-hating (or at least the least positive toward itself) of the Census regions.

To some extent, Midwestern cities do have a branding problem. Domestic migrants are just discovering Pittsburgh and Chattanooga. I expect the favorable light to open up other Rust Belt cities for consideration. The mental maps, they are a-changin'.

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