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Leave It To Beaver, Friends, and Lessons on Placemaking

The following is a second excerpt from my article in the upcoming book The Economics of Place, available on Amazon in September.

In 2005 the Michigan Municipal League, like dozens of associations, foundations and academics stepped up its efforts and decided to take on the challenge of weeding through all of the data in an attempt to find a clear path for the state that would lead us out of our economic purgatory.

Our studies started where most others have— looking at the impact of our tax structure on business, the positive and negative effect of the state’s regulatory environment on job creation, and the quality of our public schools. These issues have dominated the economic development debate in Michigan for decades and many “in the know” believe we must address these issues above all else before moving on to other avenues. But trying to find a link between what the business- as-usual crowd deems to be friendly tax and regulatory environments in other states and associated strong economies proved to be next to impossible. And, while nobody doubts that it is hugely important to have a strong public education system in place, under performing public schools in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and other big cities didn’t seem to impede their overall economic progress, at least in the short run.

So we kept looking. And what we and our partners are finding is, well, both shocking and obvious at the same time.

“IT’S THE PLACE, STUPID!”

Let’s digress for a moment to contrast the migration of one middle class American family in the 1950’s to a group of upstarts in the new millennium.

Shortly after World War II when Ward asked June to marry him they dreamed of getting out of the city and raising their children in one of those promising new bergs that were popping up across the country. Ward’s comfortable job in middle management allowed him to trade in his transit ticket for a brand new automobile and head out of town on one of those eight lane highways that the federal government was building in all directions.

Ward and June sure had a consistent taste in housing stock

The place that they found themselves seemed idyllic.  Ward and June made lots of friends with the other couples who moved to town to work in the same industry. All of the houses looked just alike. There were new indoor shopping malls, too, that would make it certain that everybody dressed alike, listened to similar music and ate at the same restaurants. And their two sons, the studious Wally and that precocious little Beaver, would go to brand new schools built seemingly just for them. Since there wasn’t much history in these new places, or at least it didn’t seem to be valued much, all of the schools would predictably be named after prominent national figures regardless of their connection to the people in the area. (Author’s note: for disclosure’s sake I will admit to having attended public schools named for Hoover, Holmes and Stevenson even though I have found no evidence that any of them ever set foot in my city).

So, basically, they were just like everyone else that they knew. And they were happy.

Now let’s fast forward to 2000. The brave, new post World War II world that attracted the Cleavers and millions like them to places like the one on Mapleton Street appeared just as dated as the cities that they thought they had left behind for good a generation ago. Mirroring the new international trend, a group of young, highly educated “Friends” named Joey, Rachel, Phoebe, Monica, Ross and Chandler took up residence in neighboring apartments in the Big Apple where they could find excitement and pursue their version of the American Dream. They toiled as an actor, a fashion consultant, a musician, a chef, a paleontologist and an executive in the statistical analysis field. Think Richard Florida’s creative class types, only better looking.

This group would shun the homogenous lifestyles of their parents for a chance to make it in an urban environment that included culture, diversity (the city, not the cast) and entrepreneurial opportunities.    They didn’t own cars and walked everywhere, too. By choice!

For these people it is the PLACE, not the dwelling, that gets them

So, basically, they were just like everyone else that they knew. And they were happy.

The fact that both ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Friends’ were mega hits in their day speaks to their settings and how people would relate to the characters on the show.  Ward and June’s comfortable dwelling fit the model of what Americans preferred in the 50s and 60s and the ‘Friends’ setting seemed like paradise to young professionals seeking authenticity and energy in the 90s and 2000s. I question whether or not either setting would have worked if their running dates were reversed.

So why make the comparison?

For those of us interested in building fantastic contemporary places, the contrasts of these two productions offer important lessons in demography, marketing and city building. What makes something great in one era may not hold up in another one– like Laurel & Hardy. And while we can’t easily, nor should we try to, change the underlying fabric of our communities, we need to acquire a deep understanding of what will make communities more competitive now and in the future and actively seek to push them in this direction.

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