The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: Mesofacts and City Narratives

Downtown Detroit.  Source:

(Note: So I was doing some research for an upcoming blog piece that discusses the juxtaposition between this piece by Aaron Renn, which questions the readiness of Detroiters to welcome the outside investment necessary for economic revitalization, and this recently released series by the Brookings Institution, which notes that the Motor City’s reliance on R&D and STEM workers is among the highest in the nation, equivalent to San Jose, Seattle and San Francisco.  True, Detroit produces autos and the West Coast cities are high up on America’s tech ladder, but no one thinks of Detroit in those terms.  That thinking actually led me to something I wrote nearly two years ago about how mesofacts — out-of-date narratives — rule and potentially inhibit — the revitalization of places.  I’ll repost that piece here, and consider this the first of a two-part series. -Pete)

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 Facts by 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 Responses to “Repost: Mesofacts and City Narratives”

  1. Craig

    What comes first, the narrative, or the character/actions that create the narrative? Looking forward to your next post.


  2. D Holmes

    I actually gave a speech tonight that included the topic \”flipping the rust belt narrative\” with the premise that the legacy of industrial development as well as the subsequent decline provided rust belt cities with opportunities for transformation that are available to few other cities. Vacant former industrial waterfront lands in the heart of the cities available for complete transformation that includes public access and green space; abandoned railroad right-of-ways similarly well located and suited for development of high quality multi-purpose trails, millions of square feet of 19th and early 20th century industrial building built of brick and wooden beams available for transformation into stunning office and residential spaces. Rust belt cities that are taking full advantage of this opportunity may eventually succeed in flipping the narrative.I think another challenge for the historic manufacturing cities is that the narratives surrounding manufacturing in the US are severely flawed and out of touch with current reality. We've never manufactured more in the US. We're 25 or 30 years into the globalization process. The major US manufacturing companies that are still in business today have fully globalized, and in many instances are the most competitive companies in their industry in the world. They may employ more scientists, programmers, and engineers than some high tech companies. The peak of US manufacturing (based on employment) was around 1979-80. In 1980, Harley Davidson was a $200 M revenue business – it's now 30 times larger and has dealerships in 110 countries. Johnson Controls was a <$1 B revenue company – it's now at $45 B with operations in well over 100 countries, and a leader in advanced batteries and building efficiency. This unfortunately is not the current narratives or mesofacts regarding US manufacturing, and is part of the false narratives regarding the "rust belt" and its supposed backwards economy.



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