. . . and other Truisms that aren’t.
I hate to start out another story from this Boomer with a reference to the 1960s, but I kinda have to. At its invincible peak in the late ’60s, early 1970s, the Soviet Union boasted a foreign policy that encouraged the adoption of communism by focusing on developing (Africa and Asia) and post-industrial (Central Europe) countries. An indisputable truism of the policy – the Brezhnev Doctrine — was that once a country went communist, it would never go back. And in those MAD days of choosing sides between us-and-them, that was a sad-scary thing; that a country and its people had lost their freedoms forever.
As we now know, forever wasn’t so long, as economic and communication changes – and the courage of the Karol Wojtylas of the world — stopped and reversed the unstoppable.
Two similar truism have recently been de-trued, and they offer cities in the northeast a great opportunity.
It has been a given since the decline of the auto industry in the (…here I go again!) 1960s-1970s (think the movie “Mr. Mom”) that American manufacturing — especially in urban areas – was leaving to go, first, to the south and southeast, then, off-shore.
This meant that older cities in the northeast where stripped of their better employers and middle-class employees, and were often left with large tracks of empty buildings and contaminated sites.
A second truism was “flight;” that any middle class or any other aspiring worker would consider working in an urban setting, as long as they could escape the city and return to a bucolic non-urban home.
The result of both of these major forces was the constant chronic symptom of leakage: that good things — ideas, people, stores, eats, kids, arts and churches to name a few — were leaking out of in-towns faster than we in the economic-community development world could refill. As we learned, the same interstate system which was designed to make it easier for people to get into the great cities, also made it easier to get out!
We won’t spend time here on what happened and why (well, save that dialogue for future posts), but just note two key phenomena that are today’s truism:
First, that better employers are returning to high-amenity urban settings.
Second, that two key age-cohorts, the boomers and the millennials, are both seeking convenient, amenity-rich environments.
The result? The people-job-idea urban leakage has slowed, and it might start getting crowded here again.
This reversal of the economic tides will have its own issues. In-fill means re-use; how to adopt older office and factory space into live-work-play space? Our building codes are designed for one-use uses, so mixing people and industrial, flammable stuff like solvents and fuels isn’t easy. Restoration is expensive. Everyone wants the same windows. People make noise and like community spaces, but also like their privacy. And where do I store that Dodge Dart that I’m still working on?
Bring it on! These are great problems to have as we re-adjust once again as a society and repopulate our urban spaces. The inter-community competition now is to attract and retain key people, not just big companies. Urban schools, public safety, and park cleanliness now matter because I use them.
Northeast cities are again, well, cool . . .
Stuart Arnett redevelop hometowns through his company Arnett Development Group in Concord, NH, and is a founding member of the Better Future Alliance L3C, and has served as New Hampshire’s Director of Economic Development. He is the youngest of five sugar-fed boomers. You can reach him with your suggestions for city sites in need of remedy here.
Catch up on more Better Than Ever posts from the archives here.
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