In Praise of Staying Put
"The continent is said to have been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India,” writes Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America. “The earliest explorers were looking for gold which was, after an early streak in Mexico, always somewhere farther on.”
Back in the days of family farms we tended to stay put. Families had lots of babies—the better to raise a barn with. Those babies had more babies and small towns grew up, like the one where my grandparents have lived in Kentucky for the last 80 years and their grandparents lived for 80 years before that. Then the Industrial Revolution happened and people flocked to cities, those bulging engines of opportunity.
A hundred something years later, smack dab in the middle of an information revolution, we can supposedly be anywhere and work from any place. Yet with ever more frequency, hoards of us leave the places where we grew up and converge in one of five major metropolitan areas, the cultural and economic hubs of America. That gravity lured my own father to leave a small Kentucky town, and the urban engines continue to attract human, creative, and economic capital. But if cities are self-fulfilling prophecies, what happens to places like Maceo, Kentucky; Youngstown, Ohio; and Braddock, Pennsylvania, when our grandparents die?
Braddock, Pennsylvania (population 2,500) is a town people often point to when talking about what's wrong and right in America. Home to Andrew Carnegie's first free public library, and once more densely populated than Brooklyn, New York, it has, like many post-industrial cities, lost much of its population, housing stock, and businesses—in Braddock's case 90 percent of it. But the closure of its hospital in January— with it the only ATM and sit-down restaurant—might be the most frustrating loss for John Fetterman, the tattooed, Harvard-Kennedy-schooled mayor. Fetterman has been in office for five years and he's fed up with the continued collective memory loss of small town America.
When will places like Braddock get a little attention from urban theorists like Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class, wonders Fetterman.“Hey Dick, why don't you get out and push instead of driving around in your Land Rover?" It's been a long day, one can assume, and Fetterman, understandably, has a bone to pick.
For Fetterman, Florida's school of thought feels too theoretical: It's not grounded in the realities of places like Braddock. Before we add another bike lane in Portland or MUNI stop in San Francisco, he wonders, why don't we get a grocery store for Braddock? A job or two for Gary? How about fixing those broken windows at Union Station in Detroit? "Why keep gilding those lillies," asks Fetterman. Florida's bestsellers do not represent the realities of much of the United States—the Braddocks or the Gary, Indianas."
“Let [Florida] do the sociological nose jobs. Let him be the plastic surgeon. I'd rather work on the serious diseases,” says Fetterman. While it may be unfair to compare Florida to a plastic surgeon, thinking of Fetterman as an oncologist is actually a pretty useful metaphor. What he's dealing with is more like a malignant cancer—spreading beyond Fetterman's borough to places like Ravenswood, West Virginia, and Youngstown, Ohio. Braddock, it seems, is not just Fetterman's problem.
But Florida is not exactly a provocateur. His premise seems almost obvious. “Where you choose to live will greatly affect everything from your finances and job options to your friends, your potential mate, and your children's future,” he writes. “The place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being.”
Much of Florida's work focuses on the five most economically successful regions of the United States, how they got there, who got them there, and why you, urbane 21st century city dweller, should be there or mold your city after them. “In the United States, more than 90 percent of all economic output is produced in metropolitan regions, while just the largest five metro regions account for 23 percent of it,” Florida writes. “A growing number of us have the opportunity to choose a place that truly fits our needs.”
Or do we?
Surely there are millions of people who couldn't choose to live in one of these clusters even if they wanted to, which by the way, could be a good thing. A migratory, mobile, and “footless” population as E.F. Schumacher called it in his prescient, 1973 classic Small is Beautiful, may be a boon for the economy in the short term but bad for our society in the long term.
“They freely talk about the polarisation of the population of the United States into three immense megalopolitan areas,” wrote Schumacher. “The rest of the country being left practically empty; deserted provincial towns, and the land cultivated with vast tractors, combine harvesters, and the immense amounts of chemicals. If this is somebody's conception of the future of the United States, it is hardly a future worth having.”
And therein lies Fetterman's bone. The thriving, 21st American cities that produce most of our economic output are the “it cities.” They continue to monopolize the resources and capital (both human and financial) that places like Braddock so desperately need and they continue to the polarize the population, leaving smaller towns like his in crisis. But could cities suffer from their own hyperbole? If where we live has become another way of branding ourselves and we continue to move to urban centers with like-minded people, color coding our states according to political affiliation, do we encourage the kind of polarization that FOX News and MSNBC trade on?
I like my neighborhood. I like the fish taco place on the corner. I like that my mechanics play Bach. I like that I can get a croque monsieur or Korean BBQ in a short walk, and I especially like that I can buy— or borrow— almost any kind of book my heart desires whenever my heart desires it. I live in a walkable, bikeable, liveable place: the kind of place Jane Jacobs might like, if it wasn’t in Los Angeles.
But it is not the place where I learned to ride a bike or where I ate tomatoes from my grandmother's garden. Like many of my peers, it is among a handful of places I have called home in my twenties. And that may be most damaging part of our city fetish: the pervasive “footlessness” that it inspires. And while places like Braddock need the artists and students to move in, they also need those people to stay, to pay the taxes that fund schools and crosswalks and libraries—the things that build sustainable, local economies.
“This thing we are calling mobility keeps people from learning their lessons,” noted Wendell Berry in 1999. “Their idea is that you can completely mess up somewhere and then go somewhere else, or you can completely succeed somewhere and go somewhere else. In either case you don't know what the effects are. Sometimes people cause worse effects by their success than they do by their failure. Gary Snyder said the right thing: Stop somewhere, just stop.”
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