June 22, 2006

More on the (de)population of upstate New York

NYCO has, yet again, found a conversation on upstate's prospects that raises questions, not least about the people hawking solutions. (Update: NYCO actually found it through CNY Underground.)

I've heard Richard Florida's "Creative Class" theories posed repeatedly as a way, perhaps the only way, to revive parts of the country, perhaps even here, that have fallen on harder times. Generally, I think they're ridiculous, more of a grasping at straws ("if only we had some rich smart people here!") than a realistic solution. How many advertising executives, artists, writers, editors (yes, that's me), and similarly cultural folk does the world really need?

Anyway, NYCO finds a conversation at the libertarian Cato Institute's Cato Unbound blogs. This particular spark is struck on a suggestion to focus on concrete issues in Vestal and upstate New York:

We have a real problem here, don’t we? What is causing this radical change in the physical geography of wealth formation? What should Binghamton do? Is there any way to save upstate New York? What say ye, o wise men of Cato Unbound?...

How does the word "creative" help find a solution? This region contributed more than its share to the innovations of the 20th Century-Corning glass, Xerox, Ansco, and thousands of small manufacturing firms. IBM was one of the most innovative companies that has ever existed. This was accomplished with a minimum of diversity. Actually, IBM was the opposite of diversity, with straight white men wearing starched white shirts and creased dark trousers. Do you think now the region could be helped by some remedial general training in tolerance as a way of attracting creative people?...

Richard Florida's reply is, well, kind of nothing:

I like his example a lot. I should: my team and I have actually worked a lot in parts of this region, especially Syracuse, Ithaca, and Corning.

I think we can do more than disaster relief. This is why I developed my theory and approach. I think it provides some real levers that communities can push on. In this region, I have to say, some remedial training on tolerance would be useful, but only to some extent. There are other even more pressing things that need to be, and are starting to be, done.

I could go on and on about this, but I propose another approach. I am going to try to get the leadership of the region to comment on how and where our approach and work helped them and, conversely, where it did not.

Hrm. He apparently hasn't looked back at the places he's been yet (bad consultant!), and I'm not really sure how exactly to give a region "some remedial training on tolerance."

Next we get the cheerful Robin Hanson arguing that maybe it's better if everyone goes away:

Ed asks if there is any way to save upstate New York. But first I have to ask: is it worth saving? Our allegiance should fundamentally be to people, not places. Economic growth includes changes in the distribution of jobs, industries, and regions, and part of the real costs of growth are the costs for people to change jobs, industries, and regions. The market seems to be saying that people are worth more if they move out of upstate New York, and I have no particular reason to question that judgement. (I similarly think that letting poor foreigners move here can work better than figuring out how to improve their local economies.)

Next we get Florida, suggesting that immigrants might helpfully repopulate the area:

The most powerful driver of economic development in small and mid-sized regions, as Rise of the Creative Class points out, is immigration. The other factors Robin and I have debated, the gay index and bohemian index, are important to very large regions. Schenectady actually went after immigrants, specifically Guyanese immigrants in Queens, and the strategy seems to have worked fairly well....

I'm not saying becoming more open and tolerant would save the day, but it would create a social climate more open to immigrants and young people, as well as other groups.

This seems to be about the same proposal as old-style urban renewal: encourage the people living there to leave, and then replace them with other people you hope will improve property values and tax revenues.

Thankfully, there is at least one sort of sane voice here, as Frank Levy suggests improving education. Of course, he also seems to be suggesting it as a means to draw in more outsiders, but at least it's something which (at least usually) has benefits to everyone.

Tompkins County - and Dryden - feels to me like a mixing bowl, a place where newcomers have always passed through and a permanent population has stayed. I also worry about people leaving here, and marvel at the influx of newcomers, but I get a strong sense that what these supposed experts are talking about is building a transient economy, not a community.

I've only lived in Dryden for seven years, true. My job puts me somewhat out of the local economy. The reason I live here, though, is that there is community - and one built on a sense of place - in upstate New York. It's not just a pass-through zone of people from everywhere who stay home watching TV because they don't know anyone else in the area.

I don't think Florida or his cronies get this. All they seem to see is the short-term promise of more dollars flowing into places as they import a historically privileged class of workers with greater mobility than most. They don't seem to care, for instance, that this class of people isn't exactly renowned for its ability to mix with other groups, or that their very mobility makes it easier for them to wander elsewhere whenever the next great thing comes along.

Maybe we should put up signs at the county boundaries: "Tompkins County: Come for the Opportunities, Stay for the Communities."

Posted by simon at June 22, 2006 12:37 PM in ,
Note on photos