The Buffalo Brain Drain: It’s Not Just the Snow

There is a fascinating discussion going on over at Pandagon and Feministe (and Pandagon again) about a wide range of phenomena that, upon closer inspection, prove closely interconnected: thriving vs. dying downtowns, the creative class, economics, conservative vs. progressive politics, and perhaps most interestingly, feminism. Although neither Amanda of Pandagon (writing from Austin), Jill of Feministe (writing from NYC), nor their commenters ever mention Buffalo, everything they say illuminates the challenges faced by those who would like to see Buffalo thrive.

Amanda starts from a demographic map suggesting that America is undergoing “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated, and highly paid Americas to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, as a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places.” Not surprisingly, those metropolitan regions tend to be the ones most widely viewed as “hip places to live,” magnets for the creative class. But you don’t turn a place into such a magnet city by creating throwing up a few coffeehouses and art galleries in the hope of creating an “ethnic zoo.”

The West End in Dallas suffers from this problem. It’s been there forever and ever and it’s supposed to be some sort of cool place to hang out, but it is relentlessly depressing and corporate. I like the way the Jen describes it as an “exotic zoo”, because that’s exactly the feeling you get when you wander into the supposedly “hip” areas of unhip cities. You feel even less welcome than you did just standing at the Blockbuster or what have you, because it really drives home how most of the residents of the area don’t like your type and would really rather not have you around, if they could help it. It’s sort of like, “Okay, weirdo Gen X-ers, here’s a stupid bar with a crappy mural of jazz musicians on the wall and some fancy martinis on the menu. Hang out here and get laid if that’s what it’ll take to get you to program the computers for us. But you’re still going to burn in hell.”

Why is this both a political and an economic issue?

As you can see, it would benefit liberals greatly if we could spread the denser areas on this map out some and swing some more districts and states. But how? That’s the sticky question because as Steve and Jen pointed out, you can’t just erect a Potemkin hip district and hope to fool people into moving there. It’s the creative class already living there that makes it so attractive for others to join—and how can you attract people to an area when the thing that will attract them is that they’re already there? Truly a conundrum.

Jill at Feministe responds to Amanda’s blog and the comments (which unfortunately devolved into a debate over who gets to define hipness) by drawing out the conflicting economics of the creative class.

But as someone who moved from one young, hip city (Seattle) to what’s possibly the quintessential hip city (New York), I have thoughts. When Amanda says “the creative class,” I don’t take her to simply mean “creative people” or even “people who make art.” I take her to mean the culture-drivers, the people who decide what’s worth paying attention to and who set the standards of “cool” for the rest of the country. These people are not necessarily the artists and the actual creators — but they’re the ones who determine how successful said artists and creators are, and who shape what youth culture looks like. Of course, the artists and the creators will be drawn to the areas where there will be a large, receptive community to their art — namely, larger cities with a decidedly “hip” contingent.

The creative class does not mean simply artists and musicians: it also includes young professionals with enough leisure time and disposable income to consume what the artists and musicians produce. Or, even if they don’t go to the latest hip concerts, they always feel that they can. Hence the young doctors, lawyers, engineers, MBAs and the like want to go to cities that provide cultural opportunities.

The career-wealthy (perhaps “yuppies” would be a better term, but it feels a little 80s to me) often live in cities because the kinds of professional careers in which young people are able to thrive financially — in law, business, etc — tend to be in large cities. So economics matter. Well-paying professional careers for younger people matter. And those well-paid young professionals are almost without exception going to be extremely well-educated. Of course, there are certainly plenty of these people in places like Dallas, but Dallas is still missing that something – and that’s where the cultural shapers come in when creating “hip” cities. To make a city hip, you need more than a few museums and some music venues. You need the people who define what’s worth seeing, listening to, and participating in.

Amanda has more to say about the sort of young professionals (and they tend to be young, because the younger ones tend to be more mobile and more likely to move to attractive cities):

Much as is it pains those who want a little kneejerk yuppie hate to stand in for genuine populism to admit, it’s not good for a community to lose the cultural movers and shakers to the big cities at such a rapid pace. If you remember that we’re talking about more than bohemians, but also about the people who seek to sort of patronize them, you’re looking at a loss in smaller communities of everything from doctors to school teachers to librarians. Painful as it can be to admit, people without college educations do in fact lose out if they don’t have anyone in their communities to provide necessary services that require those degrees.

There are a number of reasons the polarization of America is probably driving this problem to get worse—it’s not just that places like San Francisco and New York are so exciting and attractive, either. Like Steve pointed out, it’s because some places in this country are so brutally unattractive. Who wants to be a doctor where your major socializing opportunities come from going to churches where they preach that evolution and therefore biology and therefore the entire foundation of your career are Satan’s work? Who wants to be an upcoming MBA in a business where creative ideas are sneered at by the local businessmen, who are too busy protecting the old boys’ network to actually expand and grow? It’s not just the bohemians we’re talking about.

And here is where I think Amanda is really on to something:

[T]he more I think about it, the more inclined I am to think that feminism has had a huge impact. The way that this rough group of college-educated movers and shakers has rapidly become 50% female means that more factors in where they choose to live have come into play. To be blunt, this means that a city has to considered pro-feminist and have a high standard of living in the cultural sense for women to attract those women and places where women can reasonably expect to face an old boys’ network or just oppression for their sex are going to lose out on the 50% of the creative class that’s female. (Or almost 50%, but I’m going to bet it’s getting close to parity in the 25-40 set.) The reason that this occurs to me is that in general, the women I know that are members of the creative class are far more loathe to move away from Austin than the men and it’s because they know in more conservative cities they’re going to be faced with more obstacles than they are in our very liberal town. And I’m going to go even further out on a limb and state that this problem is doubled up because where the women of this class go, the men will likely follow. Not that there aren’t a lot of men in my generation who are perfectly happy with the old school mating game where they have the career and the wife has her MRS degree, but a lot of men aren’t happy with that at all and would far rather seek to live where they’re going to meet women that are more like them in terms of education and ambition. And for men who are already married, they have the two careers issue going on, which is to say that they may be fine living anywhere, but their wives are going to want to live in the same kind of places that single women want to live for the same career and social reasons….

This is all why the charges of elitism or stances of populism are troubling. Is it really elitist to flee to a big city because you’re sick of racism, homophobia, and sexism? Are you somehow an uptight elitist if you’re attracted to a place precisely because they are welcoming to diversity?

All of which suggests to me that the challenges facing cities like Buffalo and the rest of western New York are much bigger than any number of Bass Pro shops, casinos, cap makers, or even SUNY Centers of Excellence, can solve.

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6 thoughts on “The Buffalo Brain Drain: It’s Not Just the Snow”

  1. Great post. You describe the issues really well. I live in San Diego County, where conservative politics are the norm, but not the rule. I do sometimes feel my beloved city could be more tolerant. However, we have wonderful pockets of diversity and culture and a vibrant “creative class” for those willing to find it. We also have economic growth in biotech and communications, which provides jobs for the young professionals.

  2. I don’t think so. As Amanda uses the term, it includes both the creators and consumers of cultural goods. I think it crosses economic classes.

  3. I’ve lived in 3 places for 10 years or more now: Lexington, KY (surprisingly hip and tolerant — there were openly gay bars there in the 1970s that were thriving); St. Louis, MO (surprisingly intolerant); and now, Boston, MA (well, we have gay marriage and the 2nd largest contingent of 20-somethings, right after Austin, TX). I think the presence of large universities has a good effect in these places, but all 3 had a lot of institutions of higher ed. That, by itself, is not enough. I really liked the report, Jim, and think these folks are onto something. Lexington had a serious old-boy network and plantation mentality in the pre-1960’s. But during the 60’s, IBM moved to town, importing a large contingent of managerial folks from all over the world. There was a period of discomfort from the folks already there, but the situation shook down to an amazingly tolerant, very alternative-friendly place by the 1970’s. I wish I could formulate a recipe for other cities to follow. But I do think the lack of strong fundamentalist power in the local hierarchy certainly helps. That goes for any religion in which practitioners are intolerant of those who don’t believe as they do — in St. Louis, it was often RC, not some protestant group, that filled this function. You have to have a city where people WELCOME folks who think different, act different, and recognize that as a vitalizing spark.

  4. Throw in Shakespeare’s Sister and you’ve pretty much covered all your politico-cultural blogging needs. That doesn’t stop me from subscribing to way too many blogs, though.

  5. Great post Jim. Wow. We were both thinking of some similar things this holiday weekend, and I was not reading other blogs. In one month’s time I have visited Austin (for the first time) and my beloved NYC for the umpteenth. The vibrancy of these places, to me, is in stark contrast to Buffalo. I have spent over a decade trying to love Buffalo. Lately, it seems kinda hard. And Amanda’s points about being in places where you feel you can be yourself ring true.

    The hipster thing might be a trifle oversimplified, though part of the puzzle. “Going there” gives credence to the superficiality rampant in our overall culture. But racism, sexism, all the other isms… that stuff isn’t trivial. Somewhere between the early and late 90s, though, it became passe, or played out, or I guess… not hip.

    I guess I should really be reading those blogs, too. 🙂

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