When people only know one thing about a place, it tends to be negative. Boston? The people are obnoxious. Chicago? It’s windy and violent. Detroit’s bankrupt. LA has traffic. San Francisco, sky-high rents. These tropes are instant associations. Even with an excellent PR strategy, states, cities, and neighborhoods face unique challenges in maintaining a balanced image: unlike a company, they can’t change their name or structure, and they can’t make people forget painful history.
Take Cleveland, a city that has been plagued by negative associations for years. It has the makings of a fun, if cruel, parlor game: what would it take to reverse Cleveland’s awful reputation? The entire Ivy League moving to Northeast Ohio? Facebook, Google, and Wall Street simultaneously opening headquarters on Euclid Ave? It must be frustrating to city leadership that the legacy of the Cuyahoga river catching on fire and the nickname “Mistake by the Lake” are still far more familiar to outsiders than the Cleveland Clinic or recent downtown revitalization efforts. There have been plenty of successes and failures in Cleveland, but humans tend to reduce reputation to the lowest common denominator. We like an uncomplicated narrative, preferably one that ratifies our political beliefs (if you need more proof of this tendency, think of the number of articles with the thesis “Detroit’s bankruptcy proves why I was right all along”.)
Many cities and neighborhoods with a bad reputation view their main challenge to be convincing people that the area is a nice (safe, friendly, interesting) place to be. Is a bad reputation actually a major problem? So people who don’t know Cleveland assume it’s an urban wasteland. People believe much dumber things. The folks who work hard to improve the city don’t hold that perspective. Does it go deeper than hurt pride?
I think it does. Peoples’ perceptions about a place spill into associations about the type of people that reside there. Are people in LA just too self-absorbed to get out of their cars or are they (mostly) regular humans who respond to the infrastructure that is built up around them? If you think Cleveland is a mistake, what does that say about the people who come from there or – gasp – want to live there? How you implicitly answer these questions will determine your relationships, inform what policies you support, and insulate you from people of certain backgrounds. In time, these perceptions become self-fulfilling prophecies, as economic decisions (like investment or hiring) are often based on these soft characteristics. Without a counteracting opinion present in the decision-making process, the groupthink is reinforced, and the cycle continues.
Pete Saunders recently wrote a fantastic essay titled “Black Power and the Pyrrhic victory” (if you don’t know Saunders, do yourself a favor and read all his work at The Corner Side Yard). In the essay, Saunders contends that cities that elected black mayors as part of the “first wave” of black empowerment in the 1970s were the hardest hit by economic problems as a result of white flight and disinvestment. “Cleveland, Newark and Detroit,” he writes, “each elected first black mayors during the turbulent post-Civil Rights era and paid a steep social price for doing so.” At first pass, I thought this argument confused cause for effect. To my mind, cities already undergoing disinvestment and white flight were more likely to elect the first wave of black mayors as the existing political infrastructure melted away. While this may have played some role, though, the essay makes a compelling claim that the elections themselves had a dramatic impact on the reputation of the place.
Saunders made an excellent comparison: Detroit and Philadelphia were more or less at the same place demographically in 1970. There’s plenty to point out different between Philadelphia and Detroit, but it’s reasonable to project that the the establishment of black leadership in Detroit signaled a loss of political control by whites, building a reputation fed on prejudice that had a huge part in its backslide. Saunders points out that we have moved forward considerably over the past decades, and have now had several generations of black leaders that have successfully built cross-racial coalitions. Philadelphia now has its third black mayor and Detroit its first white one in a generation.
Many would take Saunder’s point as just another piece of evidence for our “post-racial society”, but this would totally miss the point. Even today the story is not one of simple, constant progress. In fact, many of our discriminatory tendencies are amplified through technology. CityLab has done some interesting work lately on the “seemingly endless series” of apps that allow users to rate how “sketchy” or “ghetto” an area is. As you can imagine, these apps are nothing more than a way to spread negative perceptions with no opportunity for rebuttal, perceptions that seem neutral because they are technologically grounded and based on “the wisdom of the crowd” (as if sketchiness was an objective fact about a place being discovered by intrepid urban explorers). Rather than becoming “more connected” – always the promise of new technology – they actually serve to make us more separated and segmented, as we carry around a personal echo chamber in our pockets.
Technology reflects the human perspective and prejudices of the people who make it. If we can’t get a more sophisticated understanding of that fact, our “hyper-connected” world won’t be any different than the one that spawned the mass exodus of whites from cities, or the one that saw government-sponsored redlining of certain areas based on demographics as objective, reasonable facts. Today, as much as ever, a place’s reputation can have serious impacts on the people that live there, through evaporating social connections and constrained economic options, and it’s not something we can crowd source our way out of.