Losing Our Loss

Courtesy of Charleston City Paper

With change comes conflict. That’s life. The “life” of a city is no different.

Community conflict often arises with migration, particularly with an influx of newcomers. Wariness toward the arriving outsider is as old as time. The nomadic gypsy has been cast into the communal underground. “Okie get out” was a common refrain in 1940’s California. Even migratory Buckeyes have drawn the local’s ire.

“Ohioans have invaded the Lowcountry…and some folks wish they would leave,” reads the title of a 2010 piece in the Charleston City Paper.

Today, San Francisco is one of the flashpoints for such community conflict. The growth of the tech sector has brought a swarm of geek types to the Bay, igniting a culture clash between the “old San Francisco” of activism and bohemianism—think Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s independent bookstore City Lights—against the cash-infused “tech is god” lifestyle that is permeating out from the start-up culture of Silicon Valley.

Read the rest at Belt Magazine.

The Abuse of Art in Economic Development

Courtesy of aaronacker.com

City building is an imperfect process. Poverty, segregation, and income disparities persist, or worsen, despite longstanding efforts to affect change. The unsightliness of these social failures are called “blight”. Blight is commonly thought to be the antithesis to beauty.

Urban revitalization efforts have been infatuated with idea that removing blight creates the conditions for community good. Specifically, the field of aesthetics—or that branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste—has for long been held up as a lens through which society can be ordered, with the thinking that beautification can “rehab” the masses.

For instance, the early 20th-century upper crust framed the conditions of poverty this way: the deprived were laggards on the evolution toward modernity, and they needed aesthetic inspiration. So arose the City Beautiful Movement, whose premise, according to Julie Rose at the University of Virginia, “was the idea that beauty could be an effective social control device”.

Put simply, outside pretty would arouse inside pretty, inspiring civic loyalty and morality in the impoverished.

A line in the 1904 classic “Modern Civic Art, or The City Made Beautiful” puts it frankly: “[M]odern civic art can now hope to banish the slum thus to redeem the tenement and to make its own conquests thorough.”

Cleveland tried its hand with this approach. Back in the early 1900’s the city’s elites commissioned then-starchitect Daniel Burnham to create the Group Plan. The Plan called for a City Beautiful civic center, which involved demolishing downtown housing tenements and commercial structures deemed expendable, with a series of elegant Beaux Arts-style buildings eventually being constructed around a plaza-like green space, now known as the “Mall”. It was believed such a central source of civic beauty would radiate out into the city, curing ills of all types. The beauty would be timeless, without half-life—always anchoring Cleveland’s progression, like a compass of godliness.

Courtesy of groupplan.dhellison.com

It didn’t work. Today, Cleveland is wayward, with a poverty rate of over 30 percent, and more vacant houses than perhaps ever before. Such failures made plain the fact that impoverishment cannot be “prettied” out of the city.

The use of aestheticism in city building has not went away. In fact efforts have redoubled over the last decade. The idea is no longer about flushing impoverishment out of the city system, but rather using art—particularly the romanticization of the artist and the act of creation—to spark economic growth.

In the article “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification”, scholar David Ley discusses this strategy, whereby a neighborhood moves from “from junk to art and then on to commodity”, or form poor to reinvested in. The gist of the process—one with roots in 1960’s France to present-day everywhere—goes something like this:

Artists, as members of the bohemian vanguard, historically seek affordable, gritty locations. They do this out of necessity—most of the creative class is paid pittance—but also for creativeness.

“Hardship was the price one paid for being in the thick of it,” wrote artist David Byrne in the article “Will Work for Inspiration”.

Where artists cluster, so does the concept of anti-conformity and “cool”. Here, according to Ley, the space of the artist and the space of middle class youth overlap, bringing an era’s hipsters into a neighborhood’s fold. Things can turn quickly after that. Developers and entrepreneurs constantly sniff out the next big thing so as to buy lower and rent higher, with the scent pegged to “what the kids like”, hence the incessant “Millennial” fixation. Eventually, as gentrification continues, the artists and hipsters give way to professionals, until a landscape of wealth and conformity fills in the “starving artist” romanticism that greased its path.

Notwithstanding which side of the gentrification debate one falls on, the fact of the matter is that this form of city revitalization—from junk, to art, to commodity—is rampant, becoming defacto neighborhood development. In Cleveland, the arts-fueled districts of Tremont, Detroit Shoreway, Collinwood, and St. Clair-Superior speaks to the popularity of this approach.

This isn’t to say it inevitably works. There are only so many artists and hipsters to go around, and not everywhere is Portland, Austin, or Brooklyn. And so when Anywhere, USA does the art-as-development approach, things do not always go as planned.

In the recent piece called the “Best of All Possible Worlds”, writer Mark Lane travels to Evansville, Indiana, where a public art contest sparked “a debate over class, race, and good taste”. The story details how the town’s arts district plan devolved into land-grabbing by a quasi-governmental agency whose attempt at subsidizing housing for artist attraction often turned into the demolition of stately structures, if only because getting artists to move to small town Indiana is hard.

Courtesy of The Believer

Courtesy of The Believer

Beyond the wisdom of such a strategy, the piece examines the role of art as an aesthetic discipline, noting that the use of art in city revitalization is commonly not art for art’s sake, but is rather employed as a means to “fertilize” low-income neighborhoods for the arrival of the creative class.

“It’s not about the art,” noted an Evansville city planner to Lane. “Art is just another tool for economic sustainability.”

Such is a far cry from Picasso’s purpose of art, which is “washing the dust of daily life off our souls”.

Curiously, you don’t hear much from the mouthpieces of the art establishment as to the way the discipline is being used: as a means to create commercial order. Historically, the beauty and need of civic art has been about allowing the brokenness of life to enter into the artist’s realm so that the pain and suffering of humanity could be recast through the value of creation. Here, the soul is the audience, with the ovation meant to reverberate into how we “do” community.

Picasso’s Guernica

But civic art as “junk, to art, to commodity” achieves something else. It turns the act of creation into the act of “creative classification”. And given our current economic inequalities and the erosion of the middle class, it is fair to wonder why a field that can heal the soul is being used to patch a system that adds dust to our daily living by the day.

The Worm Turns

Last week Robert Smith, the Plain Dealer’s economic development reporter, wrote a feature about the concept paper I co-authored with my colleague Jim Russell. The story ran on the front page of the Sunday paper. A few days ago, the Plain Dealer editorial board covered the paper. They wrote:

Cleveland, like the nation that cradles it, has long been home to those with the ambition and stomach for risk and hard work that define the agents of change known as immigrants.

They left and found a new home, a better home and — as, perhaps, a logical consequence of that success — a home they wanted just for themselves. Hence the picket fence and the “No trespassing” sign.

And so it is that cities such as Cleveland now need to work harder to sell the benefits of those fresh residents who inject energy, a culture of educational attainment and entrepreneurship into the mix of a great city.

“All you hear about is, ‘Everybody’s leaving. Everybody’s leaving,” Richey Piiparinen told Plain Dealer economic development reporter Robert L. Smith. “But that’s not the problem. There’s a lack of newcomers. Why? Because there’s no appetite to get newcomers into the fold.”

Piiparinen is a demographic researcher who, together with fellow census-cruncher Jim Russell, co-authored a study released last week that argued Cleveland is flat-lining — not because residents are leaving, but because too few are replacing them.

“A culture of parochialism” is the politically correct phrase that Piiparinen and Russell use to describe our phobia of fresh faces.

It may also serve as the epitaph on the civic headstone unless there is a more collaborative and comprehensive private-public effort to build on such important new initiatives as Global Cleveland, which is working hard to unroll the welcome mat for new arrivals.

This is to say the thoughts and theory in the paper are gaining traction. This is good. Theorizing is great and all, and necessary–the meat of the paper is years worth of work and synthesis–but the ideas have to capture imaginations. This paper is doing that.

I have been meeting with local and regional leaders for some time now so as to prepare next steps. Sometimes I sit back and am numb that I may be contributing to something that can help the city I care about in a major way. But that doesn’t last long. I put my head down to read. I walk the streets to observe. And then the thinking evolves. And the conversations continue. Hopefully, policies to better position the city will follow.

It is beginning to be a new day in Cleveland. I really believe that.

Black White and Stuck All Over

The polarity of black and white politics dominates Cleveland. The white West Side powerbase and the black East Side powerbase have a longstanding stranglehold on voters, leaving little room for emerging demographics.

Before the November 2013 election, Cleveland City Council had 10 white and nine black members. The 17-person council now has nine white and eight black members.*

Such static black and white voting blocs “apply poorly in modern times,” urban scholar Dowell Myers has written. “Accommodating the new multiethnic America requires new thinking.”

Read the rest of the article at Belt Magazine.

From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland: A Theory of Change for Legacy Cities


Legacy cities have legacy costs, including disinvestment from the inner city, as well as regional economic decline. The spiral has been ongoing for decades. The new white paper by consultants Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell entitled “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland”, funded by the Cleveland-based neighborhood non-profit Ohio City Inc., examines the systemic reasons behind legacy city decline, all the while charting a path to possible solutions.

Shrinking city theorists say the problem with the legacy city is that people leave. But urban powerhouses such as New York lose more people in a day than the Cleveland’s of the world do in a month. The real problem with legacy cities is an absence of newcomers, as it is this lack of “demographic dynamism”, or “churn”, which has inhibited economic evolution.

To arrest economic decline, cities commonly undertake a patchwork of strategies. These include retention strategies that supposedly “plug” the brain drain; attraction strategies that emphasize placemaking, residential density, and urban amenities; or “big ticket” developments such as convention centers and casinos. The authors take another stance, theorizing that migration is the key to economic development. Cities that lack churn need churn. Without it, legacy cities can act as echo chambers of patronage and provincial thinking.

But churn in itself is not enough. Often, the importance of inmigrants equates to filling condos or restaurant booths. Take the case of Ohio City, an inner city neighborhood bordering Cleveland’s central business district. The neighborhood, home to the iconic West Side Market, has made strides in its recovery. Investment is coming in. Condos are being built. Restaurants are opening. But this is not enough.

In fact the mistake cities make when it comes to reinvestment is to settle with the low-hanging fruit of gentrification. Here, the neighborhood is seen as a center of consumption, with trickle-down effects from increased commerce said to reach low-income residents living in gentrifying, or potentially gentrifying, neighborhoods. This does not happen.

This does not mean the reinvestment going on in neighborhoods such as Ohio City is unwelcome. It is only to say something else is needed. Ohio City needs to be made into a neighborhood that produces, not simply one that consumes.

One way to do this is to ensure that the diversity of race, class, and businesses that currently exist in the neighborhood continue in the face of increasing market demand. For instance, Ohio City is 36% Black, 20% Hispanic, and 54% White. The neighborhood’s race and class mixing has actually increased over the last decade. Ensuring such heterogeneity can remain in the face of market demand is the challenge of the day. To date, no city has systematically ensured a process of policies that prioritizes the long-term benefits of integrated communities over the short-term benefits of consumer-driven gentrification.

The benefits include increased economic mobility for individuals who grow up in integrated neighborhoods. For instance, a new study called “The Equality of Opportunity Project” found that Cleveland ranked 45th out of 50 metro areas in terms of upward mobility. A child in Cleveland raised in the bottom fifth of an income class only has a five percent chance of rising to the top fifth in her lifetime. The study, however, concludes that “upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods”.

Cleveland is at a threshold. The re-investment is coming, and the importance of this infill as a means to arrest its economic and demographic decline cannot be overstated. Yet this will only occur if re-investment is leveraged so as to develop real economic growth. In other words, simply developing “creative class” enclaves in the likes of Ohio City and Tremont will do nothing to transition Cleveland from a segregated, siloed city with high rates of poverty into a globalized, integrated city comprised of neighborhoods that produce human capacity.

Where people live informs them no less than where they work or go to school. Neighborhoods are factories of human capital. Equitable, integrated environments maximize potential. America needs to go past the gentrification model of revitalization. The cities that still have a fighting chance, like Cleveland, should lead.

Read the white paper here.

Home Makeover

Young people are taking their talents to Cleveland, but do local leaders want their ideas or just their pocketbooks?

Middle America is a place you leave. It is the spurned lover. Cleveland is the land that progress left. Life is elsewhere, in New York, San Francisco or — cueing LeBron James — Miami.

Such is the narrative of the Rust Belt, one told by handwringing civic leaders with a sky-is-falling fear. They worry the best and brightest young people will leave and never come back. Eventually, a city that keeps exhaling its youth becomes a town gasping for an urban pulse. This is a city’s worst nightmare: a today with no tomorrow.

Read the rest of the piece at Cleveland Magazine.

Density Can Be Good, Density Can Still Be Used as a Hammer

A Facebook exchange with some folks I respect about my recent article “The Story of Density, Unpacked” that was highlighted over at Real Clear Policy yesterday.

  • Mandy Metcalf Respectfully, density has a lot of actual benefits, such as walkability and sustainability. I agree creative class theory is bogus but I don’t see how that leads logically to a critique of density.
  • Lynn Phares I agree with Mandy Metcalf. Common sense and economic reality are frequently tossed aside in the rush to disprove Richard Florida. He was a hero to planners and politicians but urban/labor economists were often dubious of the power of the creative class. I wish we could move beyond this idea of a “silver bullet” that will magically fix cities. Density helps precisely because it is a more efficient use of resources and it means there are the economies of scale to support the million and one pieces needed for a city to thrive.
    4 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1
  • Richey Piiparinen Thanks for the comments. The essay was not a critique of density as a thing in itself. There are many benefits to dense, livable neighborhoods. The critique was against using density as a facade to facilitate unequal, harmful spatial development of cities that in the long run have greater negative consequences to the neighborhood fabric than benefits. I am focusing on “wealth jamming” here, or creating vertical towers of affluence. I want to move past this story as well, but to do that the story needs to be exposed for the fallacies inherent in it. Then we can get back to density as a sustainable form of development. Not a big sprawl guy after all.
  • Richey Piiparinen Also Lynn Phares and Mandy Metcalf, this is a great read on the concept that came from the piece. Again, density is outcome of great cities, not a goal. The ones making it a goal are the ones benefiting financially, i.e. real estate developers, who, quite frankly, know little about broad economic growth, and how to get there. They know pro formas. http://cornersideyard.blogspot.com/…

  • Mandy Metcalf Richey Piiparinen I had missed the subtleties of your point – thanks for explaining further. My perspective is that density must be a strategy that a city actively pursues or it just doesn’t happen. Otherwise it’s just too easy to tear down buildings for parking lots that support sprawl or to allow a house to go up on several consolidated lots in neighborhoods where we want to preserve density. Cities don’t happen entirely organically these days – they follow the rules we set for them. Density will only be an outcome if we plan for it and nurture the demand for density with zoning, parking and street infrastructure policies that support it.
  • Richey Piiparinen I agree Mandy Metcalf. Cities must also plan for equitable, integrated redevelopment as well, or the benefits of density, economically, will get drowned out by the negative effects of segregated societies.

Shrink or Die Trying

Courtesy of landlordrecords.tumblr.com

Courtesy of landlordrecords.tumblr.com

Since the 1950s, Cleveland has been steadily losing population. That means most people who were born and grew up here do not remember a time when the city was growing.

There’s a term for this consistent depopulation: shrinking city syndrome. Definitions vary, but according to a widely quoted 2009 Tufts University study, a shrinking city has lost at least 10 percent of its peak population since 1950. Though Cleveland ranks high in the shrinking city roster—it’s the fourth most depopulated city in the nation, having lost 56 percent of its population since 1950s–it’s certainly not alone in its decline.

If downsizing becomes part of your collective DNA, it’s hard to envision growth. Rust Belt leaders often frame discussions of the future as “How do we dwindle best?”

Read the rest in Belt Magazine.

The Story of Density, Unpacked


Courtesy of NY Times

“The heresy of heresies was common sense”—George Orwell

The stories we tell affect the lives we lead. I do not mean to be abstract here. I mean, literally, the stories that are told make up a kind of meta-reality that soaks in us to form a “truth”. This “truth” affects policy, which affects investment, which affects bricks and mortar, pocketbooks, and power. Eventually, the “truth” trickles down into a more real reality that defines the lives of the powerless.

The story du jour in urban policy is one of density. The arc of the story is that cities are places where “ideas come to have sex”. The lovechild is innovation. The mood lighting is creative placemaking.

The Kama Sutra of density reads this way: creative people cluster in cities that are good at lifestyle manufacturing. The more people that are sardined the higher likelihood there will be “serendipitous” encounters. The more serendipity in a city the better chance the next “big thing” will occur. The next “big thing” will lead to a good start-up, which will lead to an agglomeration of start-ups, termed an “Innovation District”. Detroit becomes Detroit 2.0 then.

The story of density is a seductive story. Society-making is sobering and full of harsh realities. The story of density is seamless, velvety. It is no wonder the story gets sold, implemented, and then told and re-told, despite the validity and logic of the story being pretty awful.

Take the recent New York Times piece entitled “What It Takes to Create a Start-up Community”. In it, the writer interviews urbanist Richard Florida. “Population density, [Florida] said, allows for the serendipitous encounters that inspire creativity, innovation and collaboration,” reads one key passage in the piece.

The story goes on to highlight the emerging tech hub of Boulder as the exemplar of the story of density. One problem: Boulder, a city of less than 100,000, isn’t dense, with a population per square mile of 3,948. The writer moves the goal posts a bit and says the city “is an unusual case of density”, before going on to question whether a start-up community can be created in a city like Detroit that “lacks density”. Yet Detroit, despite being a land mass comprised of one-third vacant land, is denser than Boulder, at 5,144 people per square mile. In all, Aristotle would have a field day with the piece.

Such illogic peppers the story of density, particularly as it relates to the correlation—to say nothing of the causation—between household clustering and tech growth. For instance, in a recent analysis of America’s top “high tech hot spots” by the Progressive Policy Institute, the top 25 counties experiencing the highest percentage of tech job growth reads like a “Where’s Waldo” list, if Waldo was Thoreau-like. There’s Madison County in Alabama (417 people per sq. mile). Utah County in Utah (258 people per sq. mile). Denton County in Texas (754 people per sq. mile). Fayette County in Kentucky (1,043 people per sq. mile). Snohomish County in Washington (342 people per sq. mile).

To be fair, also on the list are San Francisco, Boston, and New York. In the case of Boston and San Fran, the tech clustering is a legacy asset from decades prior, not the result of the story of density. New York, under Mayor Bloomberg, has supposedly gone whole hog on the “idea-sex in the city” script, yet tech is but a speck on the universe that is New York City’s economy.

For example, Kings County, home to Brooklyn, numbers 25 on the list of places with highest percent of tech job growth, yet Brooklyn’s Job Index—calculated as new tech/information jobs between 2007 and 2012, as a share of 2007 total private sector employment—is just 0.4, meaning the number of new tech jobs in Brooklyn represents less than half a percent of total private employment. Given the information sector as a whole is hemorrhaging jobs according to a recent Harvard Business Review, the scaling of tiny tech towns into something that measurably brings home the bacon is unlikely.

But let’s play along anyway, as that’s the power of the story of density: reality doesn’t bite. So, say Brooklyn can become the next Silicon Valley. This likelihood depends on two assumptions that define the story of density: “cooling” a city will draw top tech talent, and then packing them in to luxury condo towers and mixed use districts will form creativity incubators.

First, the idea that manufacturing cool spurs a start-up scene is spurious at best. I mean, has this ever worked? Please don’t say Austin, or any number of college towns or state capitals or places with boutique streets that are weaned off of the government.

What about Boulder? In the piece “How Boulder Grew Into a Hub for Start-Ups”, the writer questions venture capitalist Brad Feld, a huge player in the Boulder tech scene, about what brings entrepreneurs to communities like Boulder. Feld throws his hands in the air:

“People want to live where they want to live. You should figure out where you want to be and build a life around it. Different geographies attract different people.”

Why did Feld move to Boulder?

Actually, I moved here in 1995 because Amy said “I’m moving to Boulder – you can come with me if you want.” And I did.

The second assumption relates to the idea that sardining people will ultimately lead to serendipity and innovation. I smell underpants gnomes. Specifically, in an episode of South Park, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone expose the blind loyalty attached to the façade of “expertise”. The episode goes like this: the characters need a presentation for class. One of the boys talks about a group of gnomes that inexplicably sneak into his house to steal underpants. There’s got to be a reason, right? They confront the gnomes who, claiming to be business experts, explain their business plan as thus: Step 1: Collect Underpants. Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

The story of density has the same logic gap. Step 1: Population density. Step 2: ? Step 3: Innovation. Density gurus will claim Step 2 relates to serendipity. But serendipity is chance. How do you plan for chance?

Even if you could, creative classification is largely a process of homogenization by class, age, and profession, which, according to Rita King of Science House, erodes the possibility of meaningful chance encounters. “Artists bumping into other artists or business people bumping into other business people or Mormons bumping into other Mormons, etc., isn’t real serendipity,” notes King.

Okay, so if the story of density really isn’t about innovation then what is it about? The answer can be found in a recent article entitled “Urban Prophet” in the real estate trade mag Property Week. The piece quotes the then-chairman of US real estate firm Forest City Enterprises, on his reading of Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Classes: “You have given real estate developers the playbook”.

Put simply, the point of sardining is to make as much money as possible for those who have money. This is a truth. But it’s a tough sell to neighborhoods and cities increasingly experiencing the negative effects of real estate wealth jamming, and more broadly, wealth inequality. Enter the story of density to make another “truth”.

The story of density is a fiction and it’s high time we start rewriting the book.


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