Mesofacts and City Narratives

Every city has a narrative.  A city’s narrative is a mixture of fact, fiction, myth and legend that makes up what people “know” about a city.  The strength or weakness of this narrative has very much to do with the fortunes of any city.
I first started thinking along these lines after reading Jim Russell’s blog, Burgh Diaspora.  There, he often talks about “mesofacts”, a term he found in a book entitled The Half-Life of Factsby Samuel Arbesman.  Mr. Arbesman describes mesofacts thusly:
When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, or facts that change a lot, like the weather or the stock market close. But in between there is a third timescale, with its separate category of facts: facts that change slowly. This middle, or meso-, scale, of facts are the most interesting and yet the most slippery with which to be acquainted. These change over the course of a single human lifetime but we tend to nonetheless view them as constant.
Russell at Burgh Diaspora finds himself in a constant fight against mesofacts, working against his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh.  Despite the fact that Pittsburgh’s economy has been booming in recent years, it still struggles to get beyond the mesofacts that continue to define it.  As Russell says:
No one wants to move to Shittsburgh. It’s a shrinking city in the dying Rust Belt. Southwestern PA is a region of inbred hilljacks who have been unemployed for three decades. Those are the mesofacts.
Another example of mesofacts working against a community is Ann Arbor, Michigan, just 40 miles west of Detroit.  The well-known home of the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s top public universities, the town is also the home of a burgeoning innovation economy supported by the large numbers of highly educated residents there.  But, despite having much more in common with Palo Alto, California or Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ann Arbor’s proximity to Detroit has put a low ceiling on its economic fortunes.  Money quote from a 2009 Wall Street Journal article about Michigan’s economic woes at the time:
(D)espite Ann Arbor’s educated work force, employers here find Michigan’s reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.
At HandyLab, an Ann Arbor firm that makes a DNA-analysis device, Chief Executive Jeffrey Williams says he has had a hard time finding Ph.D.-level workers with highly specialized skills. His company, which has doubled to roughly 60 employees in the past year, has 10 job openings.
“It’s definitely gotten much harder with all the stigma around Detroit,” he says. “Somebody tries to pigeonhole us as Detroit, we say, ‘No, it’s Ann Arbor, it’s a completely different environment.’ “
Witness the power of the narrative.
The narrative is a mix of economic, political, social and cultural messages mashed together into a relatively coherent story that describes a city.  The narrative is generally put together by the people of a city – the city’s political and business elite, and everyday locals as well.  The story is generated by those who live there, but is transmitted to outsiders – particularly the elites who interact with people from other cities across the nation, and migrants who relocate.  The story can be positive or negative.
The city narrative is mesofact in action.  The narrative becomes a slowly changing fact about a city even when the truth suggests otherwise.  On the positive side, however, cities can change their narrative.  Here are a few examples (and they are admittedly my own subjective opinion of city narratives, but c’mon, you know them to be true):
Old City Narrative
New City Narrative
New York
Urban dystopia, best described by late ‘70s films Escape from New York and Fort Apache, The Bronx
Center of global finance, one of the pillars of the global economy
A black majority city marred by poverty and political dysfunction, epitomized by former Mayor Marion Barry
The political center of the global economy, and becoming more diverse every day
San Francisco
The hub of the ‘60s counter-culture movement (Haight-Ashbury)
The new hub of the booming tech economy, centered to the south in Silicon Valley
These are the easily picked city narratives that have changed over the years.  There are others.  Seattle, for example, was once a working-class manufacturing center for aviation before becoming the tech center that emerged after Microsoft’s move there in the ‘70s provided the catalyst.  Charlotte and Nashville were well-known as the capital of NASCAR and country music, respectively; now both have strong reputations as centers of finance and education.
Alas, there are a group of cities that seem less able than others to control their narrative.  The shrinking cities of the Rust Belt have generally been ineffective in countering the strong negative messages that continue to plague them.  Jim Russell’s commentary on Pittsburgh could also be said for Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit.  Cincinnati, Indianapolis and (possibly) Milwaukee and Kansas City suffer from a reputation of blandness that likely dampens economic growth. 
This is unfortunate.  City narratives might be just as important in determining a city’s economic prospects as actual economic indicators themselves.
Why might this be a particular problem for Rust Belt cities?  I offer a couple reasons:
1)      Midwest Rust Belt cities never truly developed their own city narratives, and currently struggle with the effort.  I can’t speak for Rust Belters outside of the Midwest, but many Midwest cities grew as a result of East Coast migration and investment and may have always viewed themselves as junior partners in the national economy.  Buffalo, for example, grew to prominence because the Erie Canal, urged by New York City capitalists, terminated at Lake Erie there.  A steady influx of business elites linked to New York City, mixed with locals, kept the economy humming – until it couldn’t.  When the elites left, the raison d’etre for the city did, too.  So many other Rust Belt cities struggle with similar existential crises.
2)      The legacy of suburbanization, outmigration and white flight.  Midwest Rust Belt cities were hit hardest by the transformation of the last 60-70 years.  Detroit’s example is well-documented: nearly two million residents in 1950, and just over 700,000 today (to put an even finer point on this: Detroit’s white population dropped from nearly 1.6 million in 1950 to just 55,000 in 2010).  Similar declines are evident in Cleveland, St. Louis and even Chicago.  Certainly there are just as many reasons for leaving as there are people who left, but every migrant who leaves with a chip on their shoulder increases the likelihood that a negative city narrative gets passed to a new location.
I firmly believe that the fortunes of shrinking Rust Belt cities will not improve until they can change their narratives.
How exactly does the narrative change?  I’ll explore that in a future post.

2 thoughts on “Mesofacts and City Narratives

  1. I agree that the flawed narratives applied to nearly all of the major rust belt cities are a major challenge (as well as an irritant). If a city has a population that is below its peak, demographics that reflect areas of concentrated urban poverty, an industrial past, and a location anywhere in the Midwest, then it is a “struggling rust belt” city – perhaps not as bad as Detroit – but different from Detroit only in degree rather than fundamental character. As these cities (with the exceptional of Columbus and Indianapolis) have fixed geographic boundaries, the population declines (attributable in some instances primarily to decreases in household size over the past 50 years) will be a characteristic of the cities for decades to come. The industrial past can't be changed. The concentrated poverty is attributed in part to having a much greater portion of the city occupied by aging residential neighborhoods (which decline in cities like Dallas almost to the same degree). In any event, the rust belt narrative is not only flawed but nearly inescapable based on the characteristics on which it is based).

    Rust belt cities that are doing well are all classified as exceptions, but to the point of absurdity. For example, travelling from Detroit to Minneapolis, you would start in Chicago (global city exception), pass through Madison (state capital/major university exception), pass through La Crosse (errrrr – let's see – speculator geographic setting, very low unemployment, affordable high quality of life – must be some type of exception), pass through Rochester MN (wait – this can't be – a mid-sized somewhat geographically isolated Midwest city with perhaps the planet's best medical center – must be some other type of exception), and finally arrive in Minneapolis/St. Paul (which I have noted elsewhere – blows away Austin TX by nearly every business metric, was ranked higher than San Francisco as a gay friendly city, and has been ranked higher than Portland as a bike city….. must be another exception!!!!). So essentially every mid-sized or major city along this path is doing well (in many cases better than the most acclaimed cities on the east or west coast) – and yet they are all viewed as exceptions as they don't fit with the declining Midwest region narrative.


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