Friday, March 10, 2006
Shards, or, Life in a Northern Town
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?
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
Nothing for the ambitious to do but follow him.
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...
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?
Plus, people have to get out to get an education and then they rarely come back.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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 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.