Gateway City #6: Fall River

FALL RIVER, strikingly outlined against the sky on a long steep hill crest across Mount Hope Bay, looks both larger than it is and very foreign.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Fall River – apparently “The Scholarship City” – is where I’m headed next.

There are some people who insist that NYC has gone soft. Popularity made it lose that hard edge it had in the 70s and 80s. You just can’t get the liveliness and the authenticity in the new cleaned-up version, according to this theory.

The thought that always occurs to me when I visit Fall River is that if you miss the grit of the New York of decades past, you can find a bit of it here. If New York has undergone a “renaissance” (which depends on your perspective) then consider Fall River definitively un-renaissanced, in ways good and bad.

To be fair, I have never been to New York City, so the “NYC is soft” theory is right for all I know. I am, however, a bit skeptical of people’s distant memories, which tend to come wrapped in nostalgia. When people say eighties New York was lively they might mean “exciting, but scary, but I forgot about the scary.”

Fall River is very lively, without a doubt. In that liveliness is the contradiction that people sense in the bygone era of New York: it’s joyful yet also hopeless, invigorating yet draining, chaotic, but logical in its own manner.

Fall River as a city makes basically no sense and as such it’s the furthest logical extension of the Gateway Cities that I’ve visited so far.

A Century of Searching

The city’s history is dominated in every way by the boom and bust of the textile industry. The city was founded around mills developed by Boston and Providence magnates, going through a boom period from 1870-1920. Here’s an extended excerpt from a 1903 history of the city:

Fall River easily leads all other manufacturing centres of America in the extent of its cotton manufacture. It has more than one-seventh of all the cotton spindles in the United States. It has more than any state in the Union except Massachusetts, nearly as many as all the Southern states combined, and more than twice as many as any other city in America. Every working day more than fourteen hundred miles of cloth are made. If all the mills could be run upon one and the same piece of cloth no express train could travel fast enough to carry away the product from the looms, for more than two miles of cloth are made every working minute.

You might guess, correctly, that this is no longer the case. The city population peaked in 1920, and the total number of residents is still some 30,000 below what it was before the Great Depression.

Fall River is still searching for an economic purpose in a post-textile age, and in that search it looks like so many other places across the country that are economically dislocated. Fall River has more poverty and crime than Massachusetts as a whole. It’s had a long history of dysfunctional and corrupt politics that colors everything to this day: the city’s youngest ever mayor was recently elected after a recall election of a previous mayor over a garbage collection program, and has run into some cronyism charges of his own. I don’t know enough to make any judgments about particular local politicians, but I do know that in a political system this brittle there are strong disincentives to working together and creating the type of leadership the area needs.

A shaky political system and a century’s worth of economic disappointment couple easily with resentment at the outside world, creating the same type of pessimistic resignation that I’ve observed in other Gateway Cities. The city’s motto, probably unintentionally, reflects this: it’s as close to a literal shrug as you can get in a few words: “We’ll Try.” We’ll Try. Seriously. It’s right there on their seal at the top of this page.

The Economic Trajectory of Fall River

Things are not all bad in Fall River. What I was trying to get across in my initial NYC comparison is that there is a real energy to places that are down on their luck that is legitimately exciting. Redevelopment has its good sides, but people from Boston constantly complain that no good dive bars exist in their city anymore and they’re not all wrong.

Fall River Map
City of Fall River, Mass. 1877.
Source: Library of Congress

Fall River has a diverse immigrant community including most prominently people from Portugal and Cape Verde. I am a serious devotee of Portuguese pastries, and one of the few places you can get an authentic Pastel de Nata outside of Europe is in Fall River. This to me is one and the same as the dive bar effect: if rents were a bit more expensive, that weird coffee place I went to get pastries, where obscure Portuguese folk festivals crackled through a 90s era TV, would lose out to Starbucks, and there’d be a good deal less charm on the block.

I am hugely sympathetic to the problems of Fall River. It’s the type of place where incremental change seems possible while big change remains elusive. To be a leader there is immensely difficult when there is no obvious solution that can take the place of a million cotton spindles. I am actually being too kind: there is simply no solution that will replace the type of economic activity in the excerpt above. So the city is left struggling for answers with no resources to pursue them. Do they woo a big company, prostrating themselves to earn low-skill and low-wage jobs? Do they go all in on a casino or real estate boondoggle?

In other words, can Fall River afford not to pursue wishful thinking economic development? The answer given the need for jobs can hardly be no, but any strategy of that type will play out as it has in countless other places.

It’s not entirely fair to lay the culture of wishful thinking at the feet of Fall River local leadership. It’s a pretty endemic trait to many parts of Massachusetts, including many that have far more resources. The only reason I judged other cities, like its neighbor New Bedford, less harshly is because the latter has been slightly more successful on its path.

So a fair question would be what a good, positive strategy could realistically look like in Fall River. I don’t even close to know the answer. Fall River has a lot of the hopelessness of the struggling places in Massachusetts, with few of the assets that make Massachusetts so prosperous. Unless the people looking for the grittier alternative to glitzy New York are ready to put their money where there mouth is, it’s going to be difficult.

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Reflections on Stanning

One of the best concepts I’ve discovered through Twitter is the idea of being a “stan”.

The concept originates with the Eminem song of the same name, about a fan who drives off a bridge when Eminem doesn’t answer his letters. It’s been coopted by the internet to mean a diehard, obnoxious fan.

Here’s an example of a stan in action:

STAN: I am the biggest Patriots fan there is. Tom Brady was set up. He could throw a football a hundred yards through a burning tire into the arms of a sleeping infant.

WAITER: That is truly fascinating, sir. Could I ask you again if you prefer the chicken or fish?

It’s usually applied to devotees of people (as Urban Dictionary points out, it’s also a portmanteau of stalker and fan), but once introduced to the concept I couldn’t help but see it in the way people talk about cities. In cities, too, you see people exhibit unreasonable fandom. We all know somebody who thinks you can’t really understand food until you’ve been part of the New York restaurant scene or who refuses to believe that there is meaningful life beyond the Bay Area.

These people are mostly harmless if a bit obnoxious. It’s not so bad to love your hometown or adopted hometown.

Where it gets interesting is the people who are stans for places that are traditionally hard to love. Like the fans of a beleaguered sports team, stans for an unpopular city have been been embarrassed many times but still never stop “rooting for the laundry”.

Stanhood for a low esteem city manifests itself in different ways. Unless you’re truly delusional you aren’t going to claim that Lubbock has everything Los Angeles does; maybe your obsession just means that you’re willing to make an economic sacrifice by living in your city of choice. I have a lot of respect for the people committed to improving where they are. You’ve earned the obnoxiousness, go ahead and stan if you want to.

But I’ve noticed an interesting divide in hated-upon cities. Some have a healthy, accepting culture of local supporters and others a core of true believers distrustful of outsiders.

In group one, the only ticket to insider status is being willing to give the place a chance. Because so many people are willing to denigrate your city, if you genuinely care for it, you won’t be shut out by the lifers. In my limited experience, cities like Indianapolis, Cleveland and Providence have a fairly robust culture of acceptance for newcomers. If you want to roll up your sleeves and help here, you can be one of us. And sure, you can rag on us a bit too. We’re used to it. Stanhood here is a more humble than defensive; you’ve seen the diamond in the rough and want people to appreciate it with you.

The second kind of city is distrustful of outsiders, and it is difficult to become accepted if you weren’t born and raised there. Do gooders from the outside are seen at best as transient and at worst as exploitative. Efforts to help receive a lot of raised eyebrows instead of pats on the back. A lot of medium sized cities seem to exhibit this mentality, Worcester among them. In this type of city, stans tend to be critical of intentions and highly attentive to credentials, leading to difficulties in coalition building and mutual understanding.

Whether the split comes down to culture, region, or economics, I can’t really say. It could be that neglected towns with at least some outside draw (IE, strong educational or business institutions) have come to expect the churn of people who never really connect with the city itself and grow to resent an exploitative relationship. Maybe there’s some connection to local politics: some cities disdain their distant or meddling state capitals in a way that feels similar.  

I’m interested if you’ve found other cities that fit either of these molds. Is this a generalization that works, or does every city have some of each?

In any event, if you root for an unloved city: stan on.

Governing: Immigrants Establishing Roots in Gateway Cities

An interesting article was released recently in Governing Magazine discussing the role of the foreign born in declining cities. The basic finding is that in some cities a declining or stagnated native-born population is being offset by growth in  foreign-born residents (this is true overall in the state of Massachusetts, for example – net international inmigration outweighs net domestic outmigration). Some cities are making an explicit pitch to international migrants, although it’s unclear how well that’s working.

Population growth isn’t always an important end goal for cities in and of itself, but it’s definitely true that cities that can stabilize population loss and diversify have an additional leg to stand on. This is especially important for the Rust Belt and northern cities that have been continuously hit by deindustrialization.

Louisville and Indianapolis are two examples of cities attracting new international residents to places where they have not traditionally been. As the article states, they’re starting from a very low level, making the percentage gains huge:

Louisville FB and NB

Indy FB and NB

Compare with Boston, which has always had a high percentage of foreign-born residents. It shows 3% and 2% growth in foreign and native-born residents respectively, even though the overall numbers are far higher than either Indy or Louisville:

Boston FB and NB

I poked around in other cities I am familiar with to compare. Most are in line with my expectations – high demand areas like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland are seeing both segments of the population grow, often with the foreign born growing faster. Salem, OR made me double take. The foreign-born population has declined (or possibly remained stagnant given the margin of error) while the native-born has increased. It was one of the only cities I was able to find with this pattern.

Salem FB and NB

I am not familiar enough with Salem to say what caused this decline. It could be that a previous immigration boom to Salem has now ended, or maybe people who originally immigrated there don’t love Salem and tend to then move elsewhere like Portland or California.

Another interesting example is some of the Gateway Cities in Massachusetts we’ve looked at. Although they haven’t experienced the same population declines as an Akron or Cleveland (Cleveland, by the way, along with Flint and Detroit, declined from 2009-2014 in both populations), I suspected that I would find that their continued growth has depended on an influx of the foreign born. That’s definitely true in Springfield:

Springfield FB and NB

I was surprised by the growth in Worcester. I knew that the demographics in the city have changed quickly, but I didn’t expect it to be this stark over the 5 year period:

Worcester FB and NB

An interesting counterpoint is Lowell, where both foreign- and native-born populations are growing.

Lowell FB and NB

I wonder if Lowell’s population growth in both sections is a cause or an effect of their relatively successful economic positioning?

An interesting caveat about the data, which you should play around with: populations are based on those living within the city proper. Normally, a metro area is a better way to look at migration data, because individual city borders tend to be arbitrary. In this case I actually think it’s helpful, because it can capture loss of population whether that population moves to suburbs in the same metro or to another state altogether. When it comes to things like tax rolls, school enrollment, and other bread and butter local government services, the important question is whether someone is here or not, not where they ended up.

Gateway City #5: Lowell

Overnight the company founders became the first city fathers in what would today be called a huge company town. Both men and women slept in corporation lodging houses, ate in company dining-rooms, shopped in company stores, and were buried in company lots. Employees worked from five in the morning to seven at night. Women received from two dollars and twenty-five cents to four dollars a week, men about twice that...
Europe watched Lowell with something like amazement. Its rapid rise to industrial eminence interested and astounded economists, historians, and writers all over the world.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

LowellMA-sealThis post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Lowell is the next stop.

Lowell is, generally speaking, the poster child for Gateway Cities. The consensus seems to be that of the original eleven Gateways, this northeastern Massachusetts city of 100,000 has most successfully turned around its fortunes. Public officials and the media consistently consistently point to Lowell as an example of what focusing on image and investing in important infrastructure can do to a mill town (within the state anyway – I’m not sure this type of good news travels very far).

Having visited a few times, I am inclined to agree. Though the city benefits from an advantageous starting point, it’s certainly one of the most exciting and economically vibrant Gateway Cities I’ve visited. For this series I wanted to look a bit deeper. How good is good? If things are really as they seem, what’s the secret sauce in Lowell?

Lowell Map
Birds eye view of Lowell, Mass
Source: Leventhal Center at the Boston Public Library

Lowell: the Massachusetts-est of them all?

In addition to its status as favorite Gateway child, Lowell is perhaps the archetypal Massachusetts city. It carries the name of a Boston Brahmin (like Adams, Quincy, Gardner, Winthrop, Peabody, Boylston, Lawrence, etc…)  and along with the last of these, was named after a wealthy textile patrician who probably never saw his namesake. Francis Cabot Lowell was the foremost of the “Boston Associates” who shaped the Northeast by building textile mills and the towns around them.

Just as familiar is Lowell’s path from factory boomtown and massive immigration hub to decline. As described in the opening quotation, Lowell was a textile company town, growing in the 1850s to contain the largest industrial complex in the United States. Like its peers, it lived by the loom and died by the loom. Eventually the industrial textile mills that powered the local economy moved south and then overseas. By the mid twentieth century, Lowell was a depressed place lacking jobs and opportunity.

But unlike some of the other cities covered in this series so far, the population of Lowell today is near its height – like many others, it reached its population crest in 1920, but it is back to almost the same level, unlike cities such as Fall River or Holyoke, which are still fractions of their previous size. In addition, today Lowell has built up more specialized and technical firms than other Gateways, and performs relatively well in metrics like employment gains and median income.

A Bit of Luck, a Bit of Love, and Good Planning

So how did Lowell end up in the winner’s column relative to Holyoke and Fall River? The answer is in the section’s title: a bit of luck, a bit of love, and good planning.

World War II provided a temporary boost to traditional manufacturing that had sustained Massachusetts economies for the previous century. But by the 60s and 70s, the writing was on the wall, and in some places had been for 50 years. Cities responded to the changing economic circumstances in different ways. Some wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth, some abandoned the city altogether, and a few met the challenge with proactive leadership.

Lowell, thanks to a couple of unique factors, took the latter approach. It made a conscious effort to shift towards comprehensive planning and a more diversified economy in the 1970s. The foremost among these efforts was the “Lowell Plan”, formed in 1979 as a nonprofit economic development organization tying in partners from the public and private sector to work together on collaborative city growth goals.

In retrospect this was a key time to be moving away from old school, top-down and manufacturing-dependent economies. 1979 was well before Public Private Partnership was every government’s favorite catch phrase. Everything I’ve read indicates that the Lowell Plan was a daring and meaningful experiment for its time, leveraging tens of millions of private and government dollars for education, workforce development, and economic growth..

A difference in approach informed how the city responded to later economic challenges. While many places in Massachusetts felt the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the 80s, that miracle was coming to an end in the 1990s. In 1992, Lowell was hit with a shockwave when Wang Laboratories, a $3 billion computer manufacturer based in the city employing 33,000 people, filed for bankruptcy .

The closure had a gigantic impact on Lowell’s economy. But unlike other cities, Lowell appears to have had better infrastructure, capacity, and even political willingness to deal with the loss of the company in the company town. Lowell pivoted and continued to build on strengths, taking the loss as further evidence that reliance on a single industry was a bad ide,a even in high tech sectors. A Boston Fed analysis of the booms and busts in Lowell found that while the ups and downs of the Lowell economy have been severe, the local economy was still better off than it would have been without the high tech sector that had made the bust possible.

Lowell’s Many Assets

I don’t want to leave the impression that Lowell is doing well because the powers that be willed it to be so. Meaningful economic development comes from leveraging existing community assets to build the wealth of inhabitants.  When it comes to assets, Lowell would be well above the average Gateway City even if city leadership was incompetent (which it doesn’t appear to be) or if the state ignored it.

IMG_2254
Old mill machinery, left in place in a building now used by UMass-Lowell and other local institutions.

First and foremost, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The fact that the state’s second largest and fastest growing public university is located downtown and runs programs from dozens of the old mill buildings provides a unique “anchor tenant” for the whole town. Similar to Worcester, “town-gown” relations aren’t the strongest, but having 20,000 student and faculty based in the city is a powerful economic engine that isn’t going anywhere.

The people are another significant asset. One reason that Lowell has not suffered severe population loss is foreign inmigration. Lowell has grown much more ethnically diverse in the last 25 years, with an enlivening effect on the local community. Lowell has the highest proportion of Cambodians of any city in the US, with a corresponding effect on local cuisine and culture. Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, Brazilians, Colombians, Indians, and Liberians and other African immigrants also form substantial communities.

More so than its neighbors, Lowell also received attention at the federal and state level. The name Paul Tsongas may not mean much to folks outside of Massachusetts, but he was instrumental to the government attention and financial firepower that has helped Lowell weather the economic storms over the years. As a US Representative, Senator from Massachusetts, and presidential candidate in 1992, hometown hero Tsongas tirelessly advocated for Lowell. His major issues in Congress were ecological and historical preservation, and he cultivated a reputation for economic revitalization. It’s probably due to his work that the National Historical Park that forms a centerpiece of Lowell’s downtown today exists.

Lowell-Merrimack looking west
Merrimack Street looking west, Lowell, Mass.
Source: Library of Congress
Lowell-Merrimack looking west 2012
Same view in 2012. Not many Massachusetts cities stayed this well preserved through urban renewal.
Source: Google Maps

The combination of economic flexibility and asset preservation has allowed Lowell to be relatively well positioned in the 21st century. Through skillful use of historical status and open space, the city does a good job cultivating a feel of modern entrepreneurship existing alongside the machines that powered the industrial revolution. For example, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell occupies space in old mill buildings that maintain their impressive original machinery.

This balance is not easy to do. Many other cities in Massachusetts don’t have the capacity to put underutilized properties to use unless they have a new occupant with deep pockets moving in. Trying to balance preservation and growth either leads to a jarring contrast between the past and present, or row after row of abandoned buildings. The temptation to clear “eyesores” and start again or focus attention on the outlying areas is strong.

Looking up, but a long way yet

I’ve been pretty glowing in my review of Lowell, but it would not be a Gateway City if everything was working perfectly. Lowell still suffers from slow job growth, underutilized properties, and serious poverty – we’re talking about one of the top performers among a class of Massachusetts’ most challenged cities.

An example of how those difficulties manifest themselves is the recent experience with the Hamilton Canal project a vital piece of downtown with an ambitious plan for mixed use redevelopment. Progress on the development has been slow because attracting a main tenant and arranging financing are both tricky (there are many similarities with Worcester’s City Square project). Trinity Financial, the developer that had been chosen to build out Hamilton Canal, pulled out in May. The state has a lot of money on the table but as is usually the case there are complex jurisdictional questions to be dealt with, things like contingent funding and various levels of government ownership. Patient money is hard to find, especially when developers can make a killing in and around Boston with much less headache.

Still, I’ll bet that Hamilton Canal makes substantial progress before City Square. The city has a firm idea of where it wants to go with the project and appears to have the leadership to make it happen. Although Lowell has a long way to go to reach its potential, it inspires confidence in onlookers.

Lowell’s success seems to be in process rather than product. The city has more resilience and flexibility that allow it to deal with crises, comparing well to the fragile systems (of politics, administration, or economy) in other Gateways. On its own, this has not propelled Lowell towards the high bar the state has set, but it’s headed in the right direction and is won’t be easily deterred by the roadblocks that stand in its way.

Stadiums, Subsidies, and other Wishful Thinking (Part 3)

This is a wrap up of a short series on economic development ideas that are allergic to evidence. Parts one and two are here.

Aside from wasting public money, what do outrageous investments in megaprojects and inequitable economic incentives have in common? The common thread, and the rot at the root of economic development, is an ideology based in wishful thinking.

When economic development fails to meet the needs of the people it is supposed to serve there are a few plausible explanations. The more attention grabbing explanation is corruption and cronyism, which tends to draws a lot of attention and quick denunciation. The boring explanation is a lack of critical thinking and imagination on the part of public officials. Cities copy what’s popular, go for cheap wins, and try to take the shortcut on the complex path towards economic growth. A ribbon cutting is much easier than sorting out the threads connecting federal and state governance, education policy, tax rates, public investment, racial and economic inequality, local real estate markets (and on, and on…).

It makes a lot of sense that we end up where we do. We elect politicians to improve conditions, not to write a dissertation. It is hard to run a city or a state, and sometimes Pyrrhic victories seem better than slow infinitesimal progress. Striking a deal to focus on the process rather than the results doesn’t seem on its face so insidious, but the human mind has incredible ways to get us to believe that we are doing is right. The logical end result will always be things like stadiums and tax incentives.

Here’s a fitting explanation from the New York Times article about 38 Studios:

At bottom, 38 Studios may be that rare political scandal that grew not from any lies that anyone told the public, but from the stories that desperate politicians told themselves.

So true. I’d just go back in and take out the word “rare”.

Here are a few rules I’d like to suggest to move us away from the wishful thinking paradigm.

Rule 1: Trust No Silver Bullets. That next convention center expansion or new real estate deal will not be our savior. Even important steps like supporting new entrepreneurship or getting zoning right are merely steps in the right direction. We want so bad for the answer to be something as easy and momentous as a huge public building but wanting will not make it so. We have to resist the temptation.

Rule 2: There’s Always Blowback. Something that seems brilliant can have unintended consequences in a decade. Urban renewal is a great example of a period of magical thinking, and the projects of that time are not so far from the stadiums of today. We’ll bulldoze blighted neighborhoods, the thinking went, and the problems associated with them will go away. Instead, the frenzy completely erased whole communities and wiped out local wealth. Many neighborhoods are struggling to recover from choices made in the 1950s. There are dozens of parallels today, each of which has important, predictable downsides. We need to be humble enough to recognize how our big plans could end poorly.

Rule 3: Hold Politicians to Realistic Standards. Like I said at the beginning of the series, I think people are beginning to finally get it. I’ve seen more articles criticize the way things are done, from megaprojects to megaevents like the Olympics. The rise of blogging and special interests news sites make these complex deals easier for interested groups to analyze and criticize than in the days of the citywide daily newspaper – although it can be harder for such sites to have the same pull.

The question is whether and how quickly this perspective will be adopted by public officials. One thing’s for sure – if you don’t say anything or vote as if these issues are important to you, the deals will continue. There’s just to much incentive for dealing behind closed doors for general distrust to have the same effect as calling out offenders.

From an excellent paper by Peters and Fisher examining the lack of impact of tax incentives:

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government—providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems —and then letting the economy take care of itself.

It’s comforting to beat up on megalomaniac politicians, but this is really a sin of omission on the part of voters. We want someone who can affect the economy, and our political language reflects it. We yearn for someone who can “create jobs” or “bring home the bacon.” Simply wishing we had more control doesn’t mean we do and when we force someone to take that role this is the outcome we can expect. Voters have to recognize that the power that politicians actually do have is still quite important, just not as straightforward.

Just as I finished this post, I came across this article from the Springfield (Mass) Republican. A casino is set to open in Springfield, and the Republican’s reporter took a trip to Atlantic City to see how the former gambling hotspot is recovering from the decline of the industry. The answer? They’re diversifying their one horse economy…with convention centers.

Sigh. The work continues.