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Urban Minor Leagues of Globalization

Manufacturing used to be concentrated in a few great American cities, but the landscape is changing fast.
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Assembly of Section 41 of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (Photo: MarkJHandel/Flickr)

Assembly of Section 41 of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (Photo: MarkJHandel/Flickr)

Manufacturing used to be concentrated in a few great cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., make up the core of innovation that rules the global economy today. The landscape is changing, fast:

Sky-high housing costs, coupled with stricter mortgage restrictions, could accelerate the development of new, less pricey tech centers, including Seattle, New Orleans (16th) and Pittsburgh (19th). Once the venture capital punch bowl is removed, it is likely the surviving social media firms will need to find more affordable places to locate, if not their leading researchers, at least much of their marketing and administration.

Sky-high labor costs, coupled with stricter union rules accelerated the development of new, less pricey manufacturing centers. A Rust Belt is born. San Francisco will be the epicenter of the next economic implosion:

Frank Hanes, a 25-year-old sous chef, moved to San Francisco from his native Vermont to pursue a career in cooking. He has been working at Aziza in the Richmond District for the last year, and both he and Aziza chef-owner Mourad Lahlou say it's been a match made in heaven.

But recently, Hanes gave Lahlou his notice. He's moving back to the other side of the country.

"I'm learning so much more here than I would on the East Coast. I've seen food I never even knew existed," Hanes said. "But my girlfriend and I have been looking for our own spot, and we couldn't even find a single-bedroom apartment."

Putting a bird on it:

So where are cooks going if the local economy won't pay them well enough to cook here? Portland, naturally, among other lesser foodie destinations like Nashville and Charleston. "There are too many people moving to Portland to be cooks," Napa native/owner of LePigeon in Portland Gabriel Rucker tells the Chronicle. The market in PDX, "is flooded."

Cooking talent floods Portland, depressing wages. Cooking talent starved San Francisco can't find the scratch to keep restaurant nomads in town. Brain drain. As everyone knows, brain drain indicates that something is wrong with a place. San Francisco is rotten to the urban core. So is Toronto:

Growing up in the suburbs long meant being uncool by definition. From Bob Dylan to Broken Social Scene, artists born in the burbs have generally fled for the city as soon as possible. Things were worse for immigrant kids, what with our foreign cultural references and mortifyingly strict parents. The only recourse was to adopt mainstream (white, and maybe African-American) slang, style and attitudes while very young, move downtown quick-fast, and develop opinions on classic literature and classic rock. Real culture and public life was urban and white (and maybe African-American) – any deep love for Korean soap operas was a “family” thing, a guilty pleasure enjoyed at home with your elders and their eminently mockable accents. But now, when authenticity is the value of the moment, nothing seems more authentic than lining up to eat hand-pulled noodles at a downtrodden strip mall, or scoring a sold-out ticket to a Ravi Jain play in Brampton.

For me, this shift was kicked off in 2000 by British author Zadie Smith, whose debut novel, White Teeth, didn’t automatically apologize for not being set in the city centre. Sure, Irie Jones exuded the expected insecurity, but Smith’s loving depiction turned child-of-immigrant shame into a nostalgic inside joke, especially since Irie’s bff was Millat Iqbal, a revelatory pot-smoking Muslim hottie that his white classmates couldn’t get enough of. Since then, Smith has taught at important universities, opined on ponderous non-fiction subjects, won a bunch of awards and generally become part of the respected literati. But instead of abandoning the outer limits, she chose in her most recent book, last year’s NW, to return to London’s periphery. This time, she used physical descriptors only for the white characters – flipping the assumption that everyone who matters has a skin tone within the range of “nude” pantyhose, and only those with single eyelids or Afro puffs need extra adjectives to explain their exotic looks.

That type of subtle but meaningful experimentation is easier done in a story about the suburbs, and in the actual suburbs themselves, because hierarchies and legacies aren’t as entrenched as they are in the centre. At the same time, the Internet has handily eliminated lots of the isolation that suburban artists of yore – now, niche genres can connect over time zones, eliminating the mandatory escape to find a scene. Yes, downtowns generally have better transit, and prettier buildings. That’s why rich people want to live there. But if the key ingredients to exciting art are affordability, diversity and the space and time to take risks, the suburbs are holding their own.

If you want innovation and creativity, move to the suburbs of Toronto. The Soft City isn't urban anymore. For the Creative Class, Richard Florida's spikyville is the worst place to be.