Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rust Belt Reboot: Buffalo

I was pleasantly surprised to hear my own voice yesterday on NPR's "Morning Edition" show for the story about Cleveland's resurgence. I believe the quote came from an interview I did last year while at the Global Cleveland Summit. Whatever the case, the timing was impeccable. I was touching up a presentation for some research Richey Piiparinen and I have done concerning Latino migration to Northeast Ohio. I thought the board of Global Cleveland might be interested in how we unearthed the hidden migration to Cleveland's urban core. (We used the same methodology to infer Latino migration patterns.)

I flew into Cleveland early last Saturday with the downtown rebound in mind. I wanted to see if the view from the sidewalk matched the data analysis. Leading up to the business trip, I was semi-joking with Richey that Cleveland was turning into Portland, OR. Investigating the West Side, I quipped that Cleveland was already Portland. I was (am) dead serious.

Sunday night, I had dinner with the person who hired me to craft the boomerang migration strategy for Global Cleveland. Kauser Razvi (Strategic Urban Solutions) is a treasure trove of thoughts and ideas about where US cities are heading. She mentioned something about Whole Foods being a leading indicator for neighborhood revitalization, whereas Starbucks is a lagging indicator (moving in after gentrification). I suspect (haven't confirmed) that she was referring to this ditty in Salon:

If you ask Whole Foods why it’s breaking ground on a store in Midtown Detroit this month, it’ll say it wants to be part of “an incredible community” and “make natural foods available to everyone.”

And that may be. But it’s also true that the Austin, Texas-based retailer has made a science of putting down roots in urban locations at what often seems to be just the right moment. In Washington, D.C., near Logan Circle in 2000, Uptown New Orleans and the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh in 2002, Boston’s “Latin Quarter” in Jamaica Plain in 2011 — areas that other specialty grocers might have considered unworthy of goat cheese and ostrich eggs, but that were actually on the verge of a boom that, lo and behold, kicked into high gear as soon as Whole Foods moved in.

Emphasis added. Did Whole Foods do a simple cohort analysis to get in front of the trend? That's tough to say. Whole Foods is, itself, a force of gentrification. However, there is a clue in a different part of the Salon post:

“Before a Whole Foods goes in, if there’s not much private investment in that district, there’s no data for developers to look at,” says Reid.

Whole Foods fills that data void. The financial capital starts flowing. The East Liberty bet way back in 2002 is telling. Pittsburgh? These were the days of Richard Florida telling tales of CMU grads leaving in droves for Creative Class cool Austin. WTF, Whole Foods?

Like Richey and I did for urban core Cleveland. As Ben Winchester has illuminated brain gain in rural Minnesota. There are numbers beneath the bad numbers, hiding vital migration. Whole Foods found opportunity. We see trends the rest of the world is missing.

Enter Gregory Conley and "a smarter, wealthier" Buffalo:

One of our more modern nicknames for Buffalo is the City of No Illusions. However what I see is that there are people in and around this city perpetuating a damaging illusion of failure and mediocrity. When in actuality, Buffalo is on the verge of a comeback. It's not a Detroit. It's a Pittsburgh.

This is a cliché. With data access so easy these days (cue Aaron Renn's Telestrian), everyone is a demographer. Nothing will shut up the negative nabobs. NPR isn't listening to them. Neither are prospective migrants. DIY geographic analysis is akin to the Whole Foods Effect. Talent attracts talent. Now is a good time to move back to Buffalo. Did you catch those pretty maps?

There's more. The most surprising "overheard in Cleveland" moment came on Monday afternoon. I'll paraphrase. An outsider who moved to New Portlandia wished out loud that she could claim to be a native daughter. Wouldn't it be cool to be Rust Belt Chic?


Done By Forty said...

Hi Jim. Just wanted to pop in and say I heard you on NPR earlier this week, talking about downtown Cleveland. Good stuff.

Jim Russell said...

Thanks, Brian. The vibrancy on Cleveland's West Side surprised me. This trend is rapidly picking up speed.