Sunday, June 7, 2009

Looking for Hope in Hard Times

“I know exactly what I’m going to write about.” One of my students was clearly excited about her topic for her first essay in English Composition. A few months before, she had driven several of her friends in her car and was followed by still more friends in a second car to an outdoor techno concert. “I’d never been there before. The concert was along the river. We got to meet our favorite performers. So many people … We had so much fun. Now we plan to go every year.”

This young woman – age 18 or 19 – was talking about Detroit. She did not know about Motown and the artists of the 1960s and 70s. Detroit was new to her. And visiting there was an adventure that she and her friends enjoyed.

I have been teaching at the University of Akron since 2001. Before that I served as the Academic Advisor for International Students at the university. As a teacher of primarily freshmen, I often heard students talking about transferring to another university – for now take a few courses, build up the GPA.  Recently that talk has died down. One student in particular comes to mind. Bright, articulate and energetic, he is interested in American politics. He heard about the Ray Bliss Institute and the internships the Institute offers. He came to the University of Akron (a state university) from New Jersey.

These young people represent hope for two Midwestern industrial cities – Detroit and Akron – even after the stunning economic downturn that became so evident in 2008. These signs of hope are important – and essential.

I have been looking for articles by the economist and Professor of Business and Creativity, Richard Florida, from the University of Toronto, to see what he is saying since his most recent book, Who’s Your City? and since the market and the economy became the center of everyone’s attention in the fall of 2008. (Early last summer I wrote an article for the blog comparing Richard Florida’s book with Caught in the Middle by Richard C. Longworth of The Chicago Tribune.) Florida’s most recent full-length article, “How the Crash Will Re-Shape America”, appeared in the March, 2009, issue of The Atlantic. With the online version I was able to read Conor Clarke’s February 11, 2009, interview with Florida called “The Great Reset”. He wrote a follow-up discussion, “Mega-Regions and High-Speed Rail,” dated May 1, 2009, which appears on his web site ( Florida’s piece in The Atlantic stirred discussion. I listened to interviews with Florida about the article on PRI, NPR, BBC-TV, and Canadian radio.

The great downturn of 2008 (or reset, as Florida prefers to call it) has not caused him to change his earlier thinking, analysis, and insights. The deep trend we are now experiencing (most comparable to the Long Depression – or reset – of 1873-1896, according to Florida) is a shifting of our economy “…away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven industries.” Now our economy “…depends on generating and transporting ideas.”

What drew my students to Detroit and Akron were ideas – creative ideas in music, entertainment, politics, and education. A research university with 26,000 students, the University of Akron stands in the center of the city.  The university’s particular strengths are polymer research and engineering as well as research in biomaterials and medical devices and nanotechnology. In Detroit, more than 33,000 students attend classes at Wayne State University, Michigan’s only urban public research university. WSU operates in the Cultural Center of the city not far from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The College for Creative Studies has its campus nearby.

The subtitle of Florida’s most recent book is How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life. Florida believes the secret to the vitality of a city is its attractiveness for talented, creative, and innovative individuals. “And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.” Both Akron and Detroit have histories of innovation, invention, and discovery. Both cities have produced and attracted creative people. And even now in hard times these two cities have a new variety of seeds for a new season growing in their urban soil.

Both cities are part of the Chicago-Pittsburgh Mega-Region. Florida believes that part of a city’s energy and vitality comes from being an integral part of a Mega-Region. Such a city does not attempt to struggle along alone – but connects with the Mega-Region. In Detroit’s case, the city has the geographic advantage of being part of the Chicago-Pittsburgh Mega-Region as well as sitting on the edge of a second, the Toronto-Buffalo-Chester Mega-Region.

Florida is convinced that high-speed rail is important for reshaping such cities as Detroit. Traveling from Detroit to Chicago or from Detroit to Toronto (or from Akron to Chicago) should be easy, efficient, fast, and non-stressful. He does not favor “…building out more road capacity.” Creating more congestion is no answer. High-speed rail not only greatly reduces commuting and travel time over long distances, Florida explains. It also helps revitalize declining locations along the line.

In responding to the Great Economic Reset, Florida also argues that we must upgrade our airports. Both Akron and Detroit have upgraded, modernized, and expanded their airports. And Florida is especially complimentary of Detroit’s airport.

Yes, the infrastructure must provide efficient connectivity. But we have to be able to be mobile if we are to take advantage of opportunities – and if we are to be free to live where we are happiest. Florida believes we have put too much emphasis on home ownership – to the point that our mobility of labor is now at its lowest level since the measuring of it began. In the past, a contributor to the vitality of our economy and our cities has been the freedom of our people to move.  Florida has several ideas about housing – including placing a new emphasis on renting. He envisions “a new kind of rental housing” – in particular – “large scale multi-family units for townhouse-like construction.” These units would offer variety and a wide scale of prices.

Housing must be affordable. Housing must not make its occupants into its slaves. “Too often, it (homeownership) ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work – if they can find it – that is a poor match for their interests and abilities.” Today Akron offers housing at moderate and lower prices. And Detroit, in particular, offers housing at very low prices – so that the word is out among artists and musicians who are beginning to move into Detroit. For now – one result of the resetting of our economy has been the dropping of the value of houses. This result may help Akron and Detroit to attract “the creative class”.

In this time of the reshaping of America, we need to reflect on what is going on. As Americans we need to ask ourselves several questions. After the resetting - if a few gigantic corporations are no longer overwhelming a city’s economic, business, political, and social landscape, what opportunities does that change make possible – for newcomers, long-time residents, the various neighborhoods ( the “little towns” within the boundaries of the city – not just the downtown), and small business people and entrepreneurs?

In the old economy perhaps a handful of corporate leaders made most of the big decisions for the larger community and built the city around themselves (and maybe for themselves). This resetting offers the opportunity for wider participation in decisions about our cities and our economy. Who are the people taking part in the reshaping of our cities and the resetting of our economy? Is the circle of participants and leaders growing? How open and democratic is the political atmosphere of the city? How open are the city’s political leaders to new participants in the political process – both individuals who only now are moving into the city and individuals who have lived there for some time but have not felt free to speak out?

I am thinking of a recording of a City Council meeting I heard on the radio. The President of the City Council was not happy to hear views he did not agree with. As any member of Council who did not reflect the Council President’s views finished talking, the Council President would give a negative critique of that member’s remarks from the chair.

Participation – wanting to participate, finding joy in participation, participating without intimidation – makes possible and encourages creativity, vitality, and freedom to discover new ideas. Participation is an energy source for life in the city.

In his “Place Finder” (Appendix E in Who’s Your City?), Florida offers a series of questions that the individual should reflect on before deciding whether to move to a particular city – or to stay in a particular city.  Here are a few of them:

1. Is leadership diverse – by gender, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other factors?

2. How open and inclusive is the decision-making process? (my bold)

3. How are people of different races, ethnicities, religions, and lifestyles treated?

4. Can you be yourself there?

5. How does the place value people?

6. How does the “energy” of the place match yours?

These are among the questions that the people who want to re-shape cities such as Akron and Detroit should think about, too. We must make sure that the re-shaping of our cities is a democratic, open process. Our hope becomes stronger and opportunity becomes more possible when we have “a collective awakening” (as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in The Art of Power). Even as individuals and small groups, people must feel free to speak out and to contribute their insights and to offer their talent. This endeavor must not be left to one political party or one in-group.

Florida does not envision a restoration but a reshaping of cities such as Akron and Detroit. He does not envision the much larger cities that Akron and Detroit used to be. But he has been thinking about how to bring vitality and energy and hope to such cities. This reshaping is not an instant process. It may well take an entire generation. But we need to attract a diversity of innovative and creative and enterprising people in all fields of work and art to Akron and Detroit “… to find scope for their abilities,” an expression Florida quotes from the English economist, Alfred Marshall.

This summer Detroit’s residents and many thousands of visitors are hearing the voices and sounds of the music festivals, Hoe Down (Country), MOVEMENT 2009 (Techno-Electronic), the Caribbean International Festival, the Detroit International Jazz Festival. In Akron the University of Akron’s Office of Technology Transfer is operating and university-business partnerships are being made. Hope.

Gary R. Baker
Senior Lecturer
English Composition
University of Akron

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