Friday, March 10, 2006


Shards, or, Life in a Northern Town

I grew up in a backwater city, the kind of place where it’s always cloudy and cold and everybody is short and wide and the economy peaked a few generations ago. It’s one of those black holes of humanity from which not even hope can escape. The kind of place where the high school kids with ambition set their primary ambition as moving.

If you didn’t grow up in a place like that, it’s hard to convey what it’s like. As a kid, of course, you really don’t notice. But as you move into your teen years and the world gets bigger than your street, you start to notice that all the really interesting stuff happens in other places. Travel is difficult, since your city isn’t really on the way anywhere. The good bands don’t come; going to a concert is a many-hour drive. The ‘celebrities’ from your town, D-listers anywhere else, get an embarrassing amount of local coverage. Anything that’s happening is happening somewhere else.

It was worse back then. In my teen years (the 80's), there was no such thing as the web. TV choices were limited, and satellite radio was science fiction. Local culture was defined by a weird mix of local ethnic quirks (there was a weird amount of Southern/country/redneck culture for a Northern town – for years, I thought .38 Special was a local band) and secondhand mass media.

For the smarter kids, as we thought ourselves, it was suffocating. We knew there had to be more options out there, but we didn’t have a clue what they were or how to find them.

Anyway, even in that steaming dungheap of a city, that tumor that lacked even the ambition to metastasize, a few shards of alien culture managed to turn up. I clung to those shards fiercely, not really understanding them, but sensing that they were different, that they portended the possibility of something else.

I still remember the first time I heard “Marlene on the Wall,” by Suzanne Vega. It was 1985, cloudy (naturally), and I was completely floored. It didn’t sound anything like .38 Special. It was literate, cool, ironic. Educated. Urgent, yet distant. I didn’t know that was possible. I was in high school, and had never heard a woman sing like that. I found a store that carried the album, which wasn’t easy, and quickly memorized the whole thing.

A few of my fellow frustrated-geek friends and I started making regular treks to the one art theater downtown, watching movies we didn’t understand just to see something different. I remember a fellow geek (and lifelong friend) introducing me to the music of Pat Metheny, via a pirated tape in the cassette player of his parents’ Toyota Tercel on the driveway of my duplex. It didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard, and that was what I liked about it. We made the multi-hour drive to catch a Metheny concert, which is still a cherished memory.

Back then, there were very few cracks through which shards of non-mainstream culture could fall all the way to my city. There was a generally horrible college radio station (I still remember the newsreader pronouncing “Protestant” with the accent on the second syllable), occasional dropped comments from adults who had been other places, and that’s about it.

I think about my old Northern town sometimes when I hear about the latest breakthroughs in blogging, or podcasting, or satellite radio. Now, a reasonably ambitious kid in dear old Northern town with access to the web could access cutting-edge stuff. Now, a kid who gets tired of living in a milk jug (as the saying went) can get a much clearer idea of other places. The provinces need not be as provincial.

So why don’t the breakthroughs happen in Buffalo? Why isn’t Scranton the next Seattle? These places have educated people, internet access, incredibly cheap housing, and not all that many distractions. These should be the places the breakthroughs happen. Yet, not.

Richard Florida has built a career on the observation that success breeds success, that cities with creative people already in them draw more, who in turn come up with breakthroughs that power the economy. There’s certainly some truth to that, and anybody who can make tolerance of gays into an economic-development policy has earned my respect. But anybody who tries to make a living in Seattle or Boston or New York as a creative type will notice quickly that the cost of housing has become prohibitive. Until recently, they may have put up with it anyway, on the grounds that there was no other place where they could come in contact with creative people. Now, that shouldn’t be true. As long as you can get a good internet hookup, you’re good to go. And housing is inarguably cheaper in the provinces.

So why can’t Binghamton be the next Austin? Sure, it’s cold, but it’s cold in Minneapolis, too, and Minneapolis has a thriving creative community. The last time I checked, Madison wasn’t exactly Phoenix, but it seems to prosper. And I’ve never mistaken Boston for Miami.

I thought the web was supposed to make place less overwhelming. Yet the economic and cultural gulf between the coast and the inland cities is widening. Why?

I’m having a hard time squaring some conflicting beliefs. I believe that the gulf between, say, Rochester and Manhattan is even greater now than it was twenty years ago, and that’s saying something. (Comparative data on housing costs backs up this intuition.) I also believe that technology has improved access to cultural alternatives for folks in the Rochesters of the world. I just don’t know how those can both be true at the same time. If my 17-year-old self could access the same stuff from Northern town as the most tragically hip scion of privilege on the Upper West Side, then why is Northern town still sliding?

Any thoughts out there?

Because there are no good "day jobs" for an artist in Schenectady?
I read your first paragraph and thought, "Hmmm, this sounds exactly like the town where I went to graduate school."

And, lo and behold, this town is mentioned later on in your article, which tells you that your descriptions are spot-on. I agree it's "hard to convey what it's like."

One of my professors said that attending grad school in this town was good, in a way, because you had a reasonable hope of getting a t-t job somewhere better; usually, it's the other way around.

On the other hand, most professors were gunning to leave as soon as possible or were bitter to be tenured and stuck in that crappy town. Either way, it didn't foster a sense of a stable, flourishing academic community.

Grad School Town was well past its economic heyday. The downtown was mostly desolate; the beautiful old homes had been converted to student apartments. I lived in the third floor apartment of one such home, for the

There's something that these northern towns have that Manhattand and Madison and Minneapolis don't, though. And that is Wegmans. Really, truly, Wegmans was Grad School Town's saving grace.

If Wegmans can't turn these towns around, I'm not sure anything can.
Oh, Wegmans . . . I'm in Ithaca, via undergrad in Buffalo and growing up in Binghamton (this post was quite the trip down memory lane!). I think Wegmans could save the world, not just grad school ;). I will say, though, that my K-12 education was phenomenal, and I think that helps quite a bit with exposing students to culture and life outside their hometown.
I think you're overestimating the value of technology. Growing up in Backwater City as we did, we did have access to the broader world--it just came through books instead of computers. The discoveries were there to be made, and it didn't take that much more effort to find 'em.

If anything, I'd think increasing techology would add to the appeal of leaving Backwater City. To read about New York City is a very different thing than to see a video about NYC or explore it via the internet.

While the new technolgies reveal the broader world, those living in Backwater City know that they're no closer to it than they've ever been. The internet bridges a few gaps, but not like actual proximity does. Reading about a place is nothing like being there.

I remember growing up with a sense of exile, thinking that cool stuff never happened in Backwater. Imagine the keenness of that sensation if you grew up today in that same town but with a much greater sense of what lies outside of the city. Constant reminders of cool stuff everywhere but here...aaaagh...

How ya gonna keep 'em on the farm, once they seen Paree?
I don't have enough of a "feel" for the cities that you mentioned to be able to offer anything meaningful to the conversation, but I had to tell you that this is the most gorgeous, evocative sentence I have come across in recent memory: "Anyway, even in that steaming dungheap of a city, that tumor that lacked even the ambition to metastasize, a few shards of alien culture managed to turn up."

Cyberspace seems to have eaten this the first time.

I grew up in Indianapolis, which, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, we aclled "Indy-a-no-place." I don't live there any longer, having beein the Chicago area for more than 20 years now. But something happened there.

One of the local "elite" families--the Lilly family (the drug company) "adopted" the art musuem. They built it a magnificent facility and helped strengthen its collection. It's still a second-tier museum, but it has a wonderful and holds its own in attracting travelling shows. (The only drawback, from my ppoint of view, is that it's not downtown.) The Lilly family also supported the Indiana Historical Society, which is now in a beautiful new facility, downtown.

The symphony has had a strong reputation for a long time. And sometime in the 1970s, someone(s) got behind the idea of building a fine repertory theater company--and it happened. Both the symphony and the theater are in converted downtown movie palaces, so there has continued to be a reason to go downtown.

The city government adopted a development policy centered on amateur (and later professional) sports, and it has, to some extent worked. All the facilities are downtown. The city also developed a complex of downtown commercial (and old department store) buildings into a large, and successful, downtown mall.

Indiana University and Purdue University merged their Indianapolis campuses (in the early 1970s)--it's now a 30,000+ student school, with a world-class med school, an outstanding arts school, and a better-than-average law school. It's just west of downtown.

I've been studying, teaching, doing some research (and some consulting) on urban development, and I've come to some conclusions.

(a) It's partly a crapshoop.

(b) Having a local elite that is committed to the place helps a LOT.

(c) Having a climate where people feel empowered to create new things is crucial.

(d) Richard Florida's work, which is really about point (c) is one of the most important developments in urban development theory I've ever seen.

If you want a contrast, look at one of Dean Dad's mentioned cities--syracuse. Or Buffalo. Then look at Rochester.
I saw Florida give a talk a couple of years back (strange... I'm talking about his books in my class today). He was at Carnegie-Mellon and discussing the problems of retaining people in Pittsburgh. They have top notch students, but they all high tail it to Boston (or NYC) after graduation. His argument at the time was that it wasn't so much the physical locale, but the intellectual critical mass of places like Boston.
I grew up in a midsize city in the middle atlantic, but I also felt many of the same things you described. My city was great, but I always felt like the grey sheep of the family. My family made me feel more culturally isolated than anything else because they were not as intellectually curious as I was and thought those pursuits were a 'cute' passtime until I grew up and got a job in nursing administration or something similar.
I suppose my point is I've been thinking about what would happen if Elazar's work and Florida's work played in the sandbox together... perhaps that could help explain some of it. Normally I discount Elazar for the non-empirical way he derived his regions, but perhaps the footprints still leave marks.
You rarely see the word 'gorgeous' used to describe a sentence that includes words like 'dungheap' and 'metastasize,' so thanks!

Exile is a great word for Northern town. It's like living in an afterthought. There's something demoralizing about it. Even the decay isn't all that interesting; it doesn't have the badass glamour of a Detroit or a D.C. It's just sort of defeated.

Ah, Wegmans. For those who don't know, Wegmans is what Wal-Mart would be, if it had taste. It started in Western New York, and is gradually taking over the Northeast. In Northern town, Wegmans is to supermarkets what Microsoft is to software. Its rate of growth is slower than Wal-Mart's, but its domination more total within its own sphere. Nobody seems to mind, though, since it's run incredibly well and the stores are, by supermarket standards, a joy to shop in. Note to other supermarkets: be afraid. Be very afraid.

And Rudbeckia is right about jobs.
I've spent plenty of time in Minneapolis -- and a decent amount of time in places like Northern town.. full of local kids who want to get out etc..

I think the reason that success and revolution comes from places that were that way before the internet is because those places have a culture of success that encourages those who are cutting edge and who challenge the status quo. In a town like Northern town, you can't quite get the needed support for revolutionary actions -- you just know that your town sucks even more than you thought it did.
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Also because, in Northern Town, all the talented and motivated folk like Dean Dad have already left.

Nothing for the ambitious to do but follow him.
Dammit, Dean Dad, now I can't get that song out of my head. (Hello, Rudbeckia; we may be from the same area. I live just east of Troy.)

I think a lot of the problem with the Northern towns is the human capital, rather than the location. You need a certain amount of intellectual competition to do your best work. (I do, anyway.) If everyone else in town is settling--willing to stay in a dying city because it's easier than moving--it's hard to get up the energy to break the inertia, all on your own.

Wouldn't surprise me if there was some level of extra desperation built in to the bigger cities, too. It's so expensive to live there, and you've constantly got someone nipping at your heels--better give 110%, all the time.

One thing my husband and I have noticed, though. We run a small business, and we work with New York City companies as well as those in our area. The NYC people are much more likely to overstate, puff, and sometimes outright lie. I think if you can't make it there, you have to act like you can...
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I think Dictyranger's inertia comment is about right. Husband is from one of those northern town/cities you mention where Wegmans reigns. (Or at least a "wealthy" suburb of one.) His parents are progressive people, supportive of his PhD, etc. We spend countless cold and sunless mornings at the breakfast table discussing local politics and laughing at the lastest "fix" the mayor or someone is thinking up. Regardless, at the end of the day, we still get about 4 or 5 comments a year telling us that such and such tiny school is hiring a such and such (Husbands general field). Temporarily ignoring the fact that most PhD's are specialized past their general field, WHY OH WHY would we choose to move back to northern town. We just got through saying it doesn't look hopeful for Northern Town. Yet they really think we should want to come back and guilt husband for staying away. They know better (the progressive side of them does), yet they insist on trying to proclaim northern town alright.

On another thought, honestly, the intellectual levels at some of these northern towns is seriously lacking. One day, we were visiting and a childhood neighbor from same upperclass suburb comes up to husband to see what he is up too. Husband says "finishing PhD out west in social science field". Childhood neighbor says "isn't that the study of plants and animals and shit". No joke. How do you even start with that?
Access. I grew up rather recently in a small nothern town - We couldn't have cable until the late 90's even if we wanted it because it wasn't laid. Our school got dial up internet for the first time in 1997. To this day you can't have a high speed connection outside of the industrial area of the "bigger town" Everything outside of that area is very slow dial-up.

Plus, people have to get out to get an education and then they rarely come back.
Internet connections aren't real. Unless you have lived the life you see in books and through the telescopic lense of streaming video, you won't "know" what it's truly like. Anything else is faerie tale.
So why doesn't increased communication allow northern town to catch up?

The tangentially related thought that comes to mind for me is the "punctuated equilibrium" theory argued by Stephen Jay Gould. (I admit that this thought came to mind late at night and I can't connect the tangent directly, but I think one can be made.) My limited understanding of this theory is that significant changes/advances emerge from a small population developing in isolation under an environment that imposes new stresses. Northern town provides the small population and isolation, but the stresses are more slow, stagnant, and ongoing, rather than sharp and creativity-provoking. The intellectual, cultural, and business extremes found in a New York or San Francisco are not present to be questioned as readily, so the idea base is challenged less often.

So what about technology? If it is speeding the pace of development and change, then potentially the most speedup could occur in the places where change occurs the most rapidly already: places that are antitheses of Northern town.

The Indy examples raise a good point. Even a place like Northern town can have small, isolated communities that spur great advances in their own field. In my profession (a subset of engineering), seminal works from faculty at otherwise-not-so-well-regarded state universities propelled their departments to the top of field-specific graduate school rankings, and those depts remain well-ranked today despite being within universities that are considered more of average rank. Those well-regarded subpopulations may be surrounded by Northern town, but they have enough intellectual challenge in a very local environment to spur change and innovation.

Ben and Jerry's may be an example of how successful ideas can emerge from the environment of Northern town. I don't know if this is true, but I've heard that Ben and Jerry went into the ice cream business only after deciding that they couldn't compete with the established local bagel shop.
Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. I wonder if part of the Northern Town Dullsville is just that: the distance to a transportation hub. San Jose, California was a sleepy market town well into the 1970s...but it has a major international airport, and is only about 90 minutes from San Francisco.

"For the smarter kids, as we thought ourselves, it was suffocating. We knew there had to be more options out there, but we didn’t have a clue what they were or how to find them." and that, I think, is related to what drd said,

"On another thought, honestly, the intellectual levels at some of these northern towns is seriously lacking. One day, we were visiting and a childhood neighbor from same upperclass suburb comes up to husband to see what he is up too. Husband says "finishing PhD out west in social science field". Childhood neighbor says "isn't that the study of plants and animals and shit". No joke. How do you even start with that?"

Indeed--that's a kind of willed ignorance that says, "Our town is good enough the way it is. We don't need to cultivate a sense of the wider world.
Having grown up in one of the towns mentioned earlier (OK, Madison WI), I have to say that it's both better than and not up to its reputation as a cultural oasis. Yes, especially given its immediate environs (read: "cows"), any town that can birth a wildly popular musical satire on Wal-Mart has something going for it. The university is also world-class, and don't get me started on the library...

At the same time, there is an insularity there that rivals Manhattan or LA. You could live your whole life there and never know that Milwaukee has a far better art and theater scene, for example. So one of the things that makes Madison work, to the extent that it does work, to provoke innovation is the constant circulation of outsiders coming in, and Madisonians going out. You can accomplish some things electronically, but if you really want, for example, a radio host who knows bhangra music from the inside out, you gotta have face-to-face.

Madison is sort of what Japanese might call an "octopus pot." It's a comfortable place, but that comfort can leave you trapped. Many's the Madisonian who finally travels to a "real" city (NY, LA, SF, Tokyo) and finds that their old cosmopolitanism was quaintly provincial.
You've hit on the problem that the residents in the aforementioned cities have been talking about for ten years. I've from Rochester and from the same age group as Dean Dad. My father has been saying that Rochester is dead but it just doesn't know it. I thought he was being dramatic and dismissive. But after my last visit there in December, it seems that he has a point.

But what about cities that undergone a renaissance - Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Nashville, Atlanta, Little Rock, and others? These renaissances cost tons of money, maybe a billion dollars. And Rochester doesn't have it.

Another issue is the brain drain - competent young people who leave the city for hipper towns. Some come back, but most don't. Rochester has to have something to come back to. It used to be that having a job at Kodak was enough to make a family middle-class. But Kodak has liad off thousands of employees. Smart young folk have moved on.

I agree with Brother of Dean Dad that technology has its limits. If anything technology may remind kids now of what they're missing elsewhere. I have hope for Rochester, but it's going to take money, vision, and a commitment to the future in the long term.
great post. I also grew up in cultural exile. brother has it right! The information environment only makes it more possible to relocate - so you're more likely to relocate somewhere that matches your life. If I have NY tastes and a certain level of ambition, why wouldn't I move there, regardless of the expense?

I don't care much for Florida (he's right, but there's a "so what" vibe to the research). According to Sassen, the distinctive way information facilitates dispersal of routine information activities and centralisation of control activities explains the increasing dominance of cities in global economic activity. In other words, yes, you can do your cottage industry in small borough X, but mid-range organisations are basically evacuating smaller centres, replaced by franchises and mom&pops.

So economically, the action is increasingly in the cities, and socially, as you point out, there is an increasing differentiation between the cosmopolitans and those who find difference threatening. If you're a creative person you need to be in a creative and inspirational environment, where hopefully you can make a living doing something that helps you grow as a person. That doesn't apply to most smaller centres.
I have usually been told (primarily by northerners) that my time in larger metro areas primarily in the southern US were "intellectual backwaters" for professional women. It's interesting to see this take on the northern 'backwaters' - on top of the contrast of what it's like to live in cities like NYC and actually survive and thrive.
Kelly -- you've hit on one of my pet peeves. The facile equation of 'North' with 'affluent' and 'South' with 'backwater' gets both wrong. Yes, the Northeast has a corridor (Boston to Washington, pretty much) of high population, high education, high incomes, etc. But it also has a very different side. James Carville once described Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, surrounded by Kentucky." He's not far wrong.

I wonder if turnover/disruption is really the critical variable. University towns at least have the advantage of built-in turnover of educated people. A city that built its economy on mass production, that doesn't serve as a transportation hub, has remarkably little (positive) turnover. Nobody moves there. This could easily lead to a certain insularity, a sort of comfort level with decline. Add to that a brain drain, and you have a real (and hard-to-correct) problem.
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