Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Northern Town Isn't Flat

A few months ago, I did a piece on the decline of Northern Town, and how it seems to refute the thesis that education plus internet equals prosperity. Last week I finished Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, which claims precisely that education plus internet equals prosperity. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that census data confirms my suspicion. If you can access it, check the map. It’s quite striking. Most of New York State, and most of Pennsylvania, is losing 25-to-34-year-olds at an alarming rate. Worse, the more educated the young people, the more likely they are to leave. In fact, according to the article, the total declines for that age group would have been even more striking if not for a large influx of prisoners.

Replacing educated thirty-year-olds with inmates is not the path to success.

The major employers up there have been stagnating or declining for decades. (In the comments to the March post, I described living there as “like living in an afterthought.”) As one twentysomething was quoted in the article, “When you think Rochester, you think Kodak. But you also think layoffs.” Exactly. It’s similar in Buffalo. Quick quiz: what’s the largest employer in Buffalo? SUNY-Buffalo. Not exactly a growth industry, and not exactly a taxable property, either. You can get away with that if you’re an Oneonta or a Potsdam, but a Buffalo is much too big to rely on a university.

The median age of Binghamton residents is up five years since 1990. Absent an invasion or plague, that’s utterly breathtaking.

If Friedman is right, this region should be doing quite well. It has urban centers, surprisingly strong public schools, educated populations, and broadband. The housing is cheap, the cultural institutions stronger than you’d expect, and the infrastructure generally is already in place. If the world is flat, this place should be ready to boom. Yet the free-fall is, if anything, accelerating. (The article mentions that the exodus over the last five years is even greater than it was in the 1990’s, and that’s saying something.) The area is providing good educations to its young, then exporting them. The ones who stay behind are, with exceptions, the ones with nowhere to go.

My area is also losing young families, but for the opposite reason: here, property values have so thoroughly outstripped salaries that entry-level workers have simply been priced out. It’s a problem, but it’s a very different problem. In Syracuse, the housing is plenty cheap, but anybody with options gets the hell out.

Yes, the winters in the Northern Town region are unforgiving, but that’s true in Minneapolis, too. The winters were unforgiving fifty years ago, too, but the towns thrived then. I don’t think climate is the critical variable.

The social scientist in me, as well as the Northern Town expat in me, finds this fascinating (and frustrating). It’s as if there’s a big pile of dry kindling and newspaper sitting in the hot sun, and nothing is catching. For decades. And nobody knows why.

In the comments to March’s post, somebody raised the point about the Eries and Scrantons of the world not being transportation hubs. It’s a good point – the original impetus for the Buffalo-Albany corridor to develop was the old Erie Canal – but I suspect that if a big employer set up shop in one of those cities, people would find ways to get there. Besides, Baltimore and Newark are transportation hubs, but I wouldn’t describe either as thriving.

Business writers have plenty of clich├ęs – tipping point, critical mass, event horizon – to convey the idea of change that happens first slowly, and then quickly. Upstate New York and most of Pennsylvania (except the Philadelphia area and, to a debatable degree, Pittsburgh) are performing natural experiments along these lines. At what point does decline inflect, and go from gradual/chronic to irreversible/catastrophic? At what point does a city (or region) cease to be viable?

Other places have gone through boom/bust cycles, and a few (Gary, Indiana, or Flint, Michigan) have simply flatlined. But this is a huge area (the article quotes its total population as 15 million, roughly twice New York City), and the decline has been going on for decades. This isn’t the Dust Bowl. It’s utterly invisible to most of the country, which imagines New York as New York City, plus its burbs, and Pennsylvania as Philly and Pittsburgh. Culturally, it’s a strange mix of Midwestern and Redneck, with traces of Canadian along Lake Ontario. Culturally, it’s farther from Manhattan than Chicago is.

Is there a culture that simply defeats initiative? It’s certainly possible to point to specific mistakes that specific companies made – if Xerox hadn’t handed the GUI over to Apple for free in the 1970’s, Rochester might be a very different place now – but it seems like, in a region of 15 million people, there would have to be at least a few with initiative.

If Friedman is right and the world is flat, this region is an unparalleled investment opportunity. If Richard Florida is right and economic growth will be based in big cosmopolitan cities with lots of creative young people, this area is circling the drain. With educated young people high-tailing it out of there, the errant entrepreneur with a great idea would have to leave to find the workforce she needs. At a certain point, there’s nothing to be done.

Can Northern Town be saved? Should it be?