Friday, June 15, 2012

Rust Belt Resurgence: World Is Flat

You've received the memo about Rust Belt Resurgence. What do you make of the trend? How is US urban geography changing? How watching HBO is doing your homework:

In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Hannah, the character played by show creator Lena Dunham, has a late night phone chat with her sorta-boyfriend during a pilgrimage to her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan. The most notable thing about her trip isn’t that she’d just had sex with another dude, but that said dude had a giant apartment. "Why doesn't everyone who's struggling in New York move back here and start the revolution?” she muses. “It’s like we're slaves to this place that doesn't even really want us." ...

... Hannah does have a point about East Lansing. The jobs crisis has caused young people to thumb their noses at the biggest cities and move to places like New Orleans, Austin, or the Rust Belt to save money, help with revitalization efforts, or become a big fish in a small pond—a far more aggressive (though perhaps more constructive) form of gentrification than my move up to Harlem.

Many people who move to cheaper cities have no sympathy for those of us who can’t afford decent lives in places like D.C. or San Francisco or Boston. A commenter on a recent piece about a young, privileged woman applying for food stamps suggested the writer move out of the "hyper-saturated market" of New York. "I think society should subsidize people's lives, but not their dreams," he wrote. "Maybe you should just move to Omaha and sell real estate."

Emphasis added. I blogged about "Hannah" talent economics back in April. The expense of living in New York is a function of having to be there. There is no alternative. The world is spiky.

Living in a big, global city has been expensive for awhile. Gentrification opportunities are still abundant. The Rust Belt has always been cheap. Then why does Hannah's story seem new?

The world is flat. We are finally getting used to the idea that we don't have to be in New York. The freelancer boom:

“The network transforms the locus of work from the desktop to the human,” said Fabio Rosati, the chief executive of Elance, which has over 500,000 active contractors worldwide. “You don’t need physical infrastructure to be anywhere. You need a new workplace.” By 2020, he thinks, one in three workers will be hired online, perhaps never to meet an employer or work in a company building.

Better to be a member of the 1099 economy in Cleveland than Brooklyn. In Ohio City, Hannah can own her own hip Victorian and carve out a career as a writer. Talent continues to stream to NYC out of habit. And yes, as the NYT article elucidates, flatworlding is still small and emergent. It's also on HBO.

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