The latest from Timothy T Brock, right here!
When people talks about a depressed US city, the city’s plight is typically explained by a departed industry, overseas competition or a natural disaster. For example, the Rust Belt is currently so poor because of the decline of the steel industry, Galveston has yet to recover from a devastating 1900 hurricane and Flint and Detroit owe their misery to the struggling US car industry. Yet such disasters don’t necessarily have to destroy a city. Take, for example, New York. Up until the 1920s, it was one of the largest manufacturing centers in America, although now, virtually nothing consumed in New York is actually made there. While the city has definitely seen some hard times in the past, it’s currently the richest city in the world. I recently came across an article that discusses why it is that the departure of a major business from a city doesn’t have to spell its demise.
One thing that ended manufacturing in New York was the rise of more advanced forms of commerce. For instance, take a look at Google: the Silicon Valley-based company currently owns over 3.5 million square feet of office space in Manhattan, much of which is in a former Nabisco factory. And this strongly symbolic story is the norm. Former factories and warehouses have gone on to be converted into restaurants, loft spaces and apartments. As opposed to making products themselves, the majority of New Yorkers now import their products, made around the world, which gives them time to pursue higher-yielding work in such fields as the arts, advertising and finance.
Across North America, Los Angeles is much the same story. In 1927, the City of Angels could claim the 4th most manufacturing output in the country, behind New York, Milwaukee and Flint. Nowadays, however, LA is hardly known to be a manufacturing hub, signaling that the city has been able to positively evolve with the economic times. Much like New Yorkers, Angelenos import products such as shoes, televisions and fruits, and can pay for these imports through their work in such fields as technology, finance and film. North of Los Angeles, Seattle is much the same story: once defined by manufacturing, much of its production base departed for cheap labor locales, and industry was replaced by tech when billionaire Bill Gates moved Microsoft from Albuquerque to Seattle. Other major companies, such as Amazon, came to the city, making it the “jewel of the Pacific Northwest”.
It’s important to remember that while factory work once provided a solid wage, living on factory work alone is nearly impossible in the current day and age, and most investors have deemed it unworthy of Americans’ abilities. Cities like Flint and Detroit, the article states, are struggling so much because the Big Three automakers based there are doing well enough to still create jobs which have no appeal to the state of Michigan’s best and brightest, causing them to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Back in the day, Nabisco, based in Manhattan, created plenty of manufacturing jobs in Manhattan, although these jobs have since gone elsewhere. Which could be a good thing: can you imagine how less vibrant the New York economy would be if it still relied on an industry as outdated as manufacturing? The article claims that Detroit’s problem is easy to solve: they need to stop clinging to a work that richer cities recognized as obsolete.