I Don’t Remember The Nest Being So Nice

There is potential that cities across the country can ultimately benefit from this economic downturn if they play their cards right and tap into those returning home to help contribute to raising the quality of life. This at least, according to a piece by Will Doig on Salon.com.

According to Doig, young people who have moved to the big cities around the country like NYC, LA and Chicago, find the cost of living to be too high and returning to the places they left, often to start their own businesses.

“Or as urban analyst Aaron Renn puts it: “New York City is like a giant refinery for human capital … Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies.”

And it exports them in droves. People associate brain drain with the agricultural and industrial Midwest. But most years, when foreign immigration is excluded, it’s places like New York and Chicago that lose the most residents. Chicago loses nearly 81 people a day to out-migration, more than any other metro area in America. Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, nearly 100,000 people left the New York area. Los Angeles lost almost 50,000.”

Of course, this doesn’t diminish the fact that a whole lot of people are returning home to live a fairly depressing unemployed existence. But according to Doig, in returning home, these people bring expectations of products and services they experienced in the big cities, paving the way for these same products and creating demand for business and government services. They also tell their friends about the great environment in the “nests” to which they have returned attracting more people there.

The reason why I mention cities need to play their cards right is because they have a role in perpetuating an image of their cities as vibrant, interesting places to live. According to Doig’s piece, the reputation perpetuated about cities belie the actual conditions in those cities. (My emphasis)

“The mesofacts say that Charlotte [North Carolina] is a boom town and Portland [Oregon] is cool.” In reality, the economies of both Charlotte and Portland have been struggling for a while now. Yet new residents still flock to these places because the mesofacts tell them they’re hot, when it’s actually Pittsburgh they should be looking to, where per capita income has risen faster than any other major Midwestern city’s, and the unemployment rate has been lower than the national average since 2006.

“I’ve been saying to people in Pittsburgh for years, ‘What Seattle was in the ’90s, you’re going to be that big.’ And they’d laugh. But the data show it,” says Russell. “The editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette keeps saying the biggest problem in Pittsburgh is brain drain. And I’m like, you’re 20 years too late. Why are you torpedoing your own in-migration? When you’re running around saying you have a brain drain problem, what you’re saying to the world is, ‘We’re a loser.’ But if you can convince people the data are true as opposed to the mesofacts, then you open the sluicegates.”

If Doig is correct about all this, it could be the time for arts organizations to step up and take advantage of their trend. As Scott Walters and many other have noted, artists flock to cities like NYC, Chicago and LA convinced they can make their careers there. This is due not only to the alluring glow of the lights of Broadway, but to the practices of many regional theatres that often do their casting in major cities forcing actors to move there if they want to work back home.

This isn’t just the case for theatre either, Trey McIntyre confounded everyone when he chose to base his dance company in Boise, ID rather than one of the major cities. Artists aren’t just seduced away from home by the mythology of these cities, there are very practical reasons to move there if you want an opportunity to practice.

But as I said, arts organizations have an opportunity to reverse this trend by focusing on hiring locally and then getting the local arts community to tell their friends in the big cities why they should move back. For many of those who left, artistic spaces that seemed provincial and under equipped when they left may suddenly seem luxurious after working and living in dingy, holes in the wall in the big city. Yet they have also probably seen and done some pretty artistically interesting things.

As people move back, the arts organizations can tap into the returnees’ experiences interacting with the current thought and aesthetics churning in the big cities and adapt them as their own. You are never going to overcome the allure of going off to the golden cities, but by providing a reason to return, many places across the country can embrace the situation and leverage it to their own advantage.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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