Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Middle of Nowhere is Not Where the Action Is

In reading a book titled The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (it's about a cholera outbreak in mid-19th Century London and how its cause was discovered) I came across two passages that brilliantly explain why the fantasy of Bend becoming a vibrant, economically dynamic and diverse urban center is just that -- a fantasy.

First this:

"The power of telecommuting and instant connectivity was going to make the idea of densely packed urban cores as obsolete as the walled cities of the Middle Ages. Why would people crowd themselves into harsh, overpopulated environments when they could just as easily work from their homestead on the range? But as it turns out, many people actually like the density of urban environments, precisely because they offer ... diversity."

And later on, this:

"There's a reason why the world's wealthiest people -- people with near-infinite options vis-a-vis the choice of where to make their home -- consistently choose to live in the densest areas on the planet. Ultimately, they live in these places ... because cities are where the action is. Cities are centers of opportunity, tolerance, wealth creation, social networking, health ... and creativity."

Yes, Bend will continue to attract people who are devoted to the "outdoor lifestyle" to the point of obsession. But such people are a pretty small minority and they tend not to be the type of people who are driven to found mighty business enterprises. True, some of them will found small companies that employ themselves and maybe, at most, a dozen other people. But they won't create big job-generating businesses (think Intel, Apple or Dell) because in the first place they're not motivated that way, and in the second place doing that would prevent them from taking a day off every time there's fresh powder on the mountain or a week off every time they want to go catch some steelhead.

Also, Bend lacks the critical mass that makes places like New York, Los Angeles or Silicon Valley -- or, during the Renaissance, Florence -- centers of creative energy and intellectual ferment.  Energetic, ambitious and creative people tend to flock together. They seek out the opportunity to exchange ideas with others of their kind. They like the exciting vibe of a city. As Johnson says, they like to be where the action is.

Bend is a former timber town in an isolated rural area that managed to transform itself, more or less successfully, into a tourist town. That's all it's ever been since the mills closed, and all it's ever going to be. And the sooner Bendites face up to that the better off they'll be.

23 comments:

Marshall_Will said...

Telecommuting DIED almost before it began. Popular with SOHO's ( Small Operator/Home Operator ) in the 90's it never or seldom panned out. More a matter of "small market" woes.

If you're a tax consultant, fin. advisor, graphic design guy, if you already HAVE an established client base from a maj. metro, you can make for the hills. But one by one those clients WILL leave you.

Primarily because they feel they can't -control- you! Make you tag along to a Blazer game you've no int. in seeing, just to impress one of THEIR clients. There's also an envy factor. So big clients leave and you work like a dog only to replace them w/ progressively smaller accounts.

Working PDX/SEA/etc. isn't tough enough..?

H. Bruce Miller said...

"But one by one those clients WILL leave you."

Email is a damn poor substitute for face-to-face interaction. Gradually you lose the client's confidence and trust, and somebody who's on the scene to schmooze with him take him away from you.

H. Bruce Miller said...

"That's all it's ever been since the mills closed, and all it's ever going to be."

And I should add that there's not a damn thing wrong with that. Endless growth is not the only definition of success for a community.

How Did I Get Here? said...

LOL, it's a good thing your stay only lasted 20+ years. Oh wait, you're still here and now considering keeping the house and spending your summers in crappy ol Bend. Does that mean this place only sux in the winter?

Not that I disagree with what you wrote. Bend is an old logging town that now and forever will depend on tourism. Plenty of smart people here but the core people that are attracted to Central Oregon are not motivated by money. You can't take it with you, why spend so much time chasing a desk job only to end up wearing dirt for a shirt in the end? I work hard but the idea of always wanting more is psychotic if you think about it.

Different way of thinking I guess...

How Did I Get Here? said...

LOL, it's a good thing your stay only lasted 20+ years. Oh wait, you're still here and now considering keeping the house and spending your summers in crappy ol Bend. Does that mean this place only sux in the winter?

Not that I disagree with what you wrote. Bend is an old logging town that now and forever will depend on tourism. Plenty of smart people here but the core people that are attracted to Central Oregon are not motivated by money. You can't take it with you, why spend so much time chasing a desk job only to end up wearing dirt for a shirt in the end? I work hard but the idea of always wanting more is psychotic if you think about it.

Different way of thinking I guess...

H. Bruce Miller said...

"Oh wait, you're still here and now considering keeping the house and spending your summers in crappy ol Bend."

And why not? The summers here (as I've said before) are delightful, weather-wise. And the summers in Arizona are extremely hot. I've always said doing the sunbird thing was one option we were considering.

"Plenty of smart people here but the core people that are attracted to Central Oregon are not motivated by money. ... I work hard but the idea of always wanting more is psychotic if you think about it."

I agree 100%. That's why I left a lucrative position in the Bay Area to move here. My point is that people who are willing to sacrifice economic opportunity for the sake of a "better lifestyle" -- whether that means outdoor recreation, as in your case, or small-town ambiance, as in my case -- aren't the type of people who build great corporations. Which is why the idea that Bend is going to metamorphose into a thriving big city is ridiculous. It needs to forget about that and concentrate on being the best small town / small city it can be.

Marshall_Will said...

Always felt Bend was more trying to emulate Jackson Hole, Aspen, Vail etc? I'm tired of blaming 'Bend' in particular. In terms of economic expansion Bend's real problem is that it's in Oregon.

I made my living off NEW business creation. In PDX most consultants keep pecking away at the same old well established major players. Wasting their lives and careers always being "just one more meeting away!" from landing a major coup!

Screw that. I always focused on sharp defectors looking to spin off -before- it actually took place. Far less aggravating.

It's hard enough to keep yourself relevant at 50+ but add in small market, scary new reg's, knee-jerk retroactive tax hikes along w/ gobs of uncertainty and there isn't enough left for ANY of us to work off of.

In terms of "The Wrecovery", there's so many un/under-employed people out chomping at the bit, I don't BLAME anyone for trying to tout one up? Without a recovery in RE, where will the equity for start-ups COME from? Goldman Sachs? Lol...

Bend Economy Man said...

If you like literature that gives you insight into Bend - try "A Small Place" by Jamaica Kincaid. It's about Antigua but much of it could be about Bend.

The fact is that if Bend were 40 miles outside Portland you'd have much less "Bend exceptionalism." Geographical isolation, strangely enough, gives people a superiority complex rather than an inferiority complex (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_mentality).

You would think that people living in geographically isolated areas would look upon sophisticated outsiders as White Gods but that's not the case. I know this from growing up in Bend - we looked at rich tourists with a mixture of pity and hate but strangely enough, not envy.

You can easily convince yourself, when you haven't seen the world and you live in a pretty enough place, that the rest of the world is a shithole. Took me many years to realize that in actuality, woods, mountains and scrub are pretty common on planet Earth! The sun shines and the snow falls on many places other than Bend. There's even rivers, fish and wildlife in some parts of the world. And you don't necessarily even have to live right in it to enjoy it once in a while.

H. Bruce Miller said...

"we looked at rich tourists with a mixture of pity and hate but strangely enough, not envy."

Or not conscious envy.

H. Bruce Miller said...

Or maybe it's an Oregon thing? Portlanders are extremely chauvinistic about their city too, constantly bragging about its (supposedly) unique "livability." And Oregonians are constantly bragging about the state in general. Looks like over-compensation for an inferiority complex to me.

Marshall_Will said...

(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_mentality).

Or we could just take you at your word. Personally, I'm DONE analyzing.

Case in point; Silverton's tolerance for homeless/bums/derelicts is backfiring. Everyone has a story about one particularly aggressive bum, yet no one DOES anything about him. Least of all the police.

So ( in our island mentality ) we construe this as 'tolerance' or being 'worldly' or whatever flatters us at the moment. Well I hate to break it to ya' but being too depressed to get reactionary w/ someone that's being abusive to -you- isn't the same thing as being "nice".

Deep down we all know the last thing we need is that (1) more thing that sends us over the edge. So we turn a water logged blind eye to it. Not the same thing, is it?

Gabriela said...

Harsh. Reality. I stumbled upon your blog looking for confirmation to my life-long drive to arrive in Bend. I am a native Oregonian (raised in Aloha, Oregon) that spent every summer in Bend since the age of about 8 (very nearly 34 years of yearly camping vacations to Bend. We even had our honeymoon camping near Bend). But, I worry about the growth, the strange way the freeway took down houses I remember (near a 7-11 that is also gone), and what appears to be explosive growth without industry. Is this dream one best left (we are living in a state of dreamers after-all)? With three children (9, 7 and 2) and surrounded by failing schools in Portland (graduation rate is a mere 59%...no kidding) and air increasing in particulate matter as I type....has Bend really become everything you have claimed?

H. Bruce Miller said...

Gabriela: Well, as the title of the blog suggests, I do not have a high opinion of Bend anymore. The weather sucks, the economy sucks, the town has gotten full of poseurs of various types, and the small-town charm I moved here is largely gone. It's been many years since I had a kid in the schools, but I do know that the schools are cutting back staff and hours all the time. I frankly can no longer see a good reason for anybody to move here. I would recommend widening your horizons beyond Oregon and looking at some places where at least the economy isn't quite so deep in the crapper. It's a big country. (PS: There are many, many places where one can enjoy camping and other outdoor recreation.)

How Did I Get Here? said...

....has Bend really become everything you have claimed?

Not everything...

"The weather sucks, the economy sucks, the town has gotten full of poseurs of various types, and the small-town charm I moved here is largely gone.

The weather is the same. Some years are mild and some years are not so mild. The economy does suck and the kook factor has really escalated the last 10 years. You need to bring money with you unless you're able to line up a job prior to moving. This is not the place to be winging it.

If you like the outdoors, cleaner air, clean water, and need a little more elbow room, it's still a nice place.

He's going to "summer" in Bend so how bad can it be?

H. Bruce Miller said...

"He's going to "summer" in Bend so how bad can it be?"

As I said before, summers in Bend are generally very pleasant, weather-wise -- although pitifully brief. And I never said Bend was as horrible as Detroit or Newark. It's just not all it's cracked up to be, or even a third of what it's cracked up to be,

I really think our friend Gabriela should be a little more imaginative and consider other places to live, including places outside of Oregon. I've noticed that many native Oregonians seem to be barely aware that a world exists beyond the state's borders. They're almost like folks in the remote "hollers" of Appalachia.

Another thing for Gabriela to consider is that rents here are high, and if she buys she runs the risk of being stuck with a house she can't unload if she wants to or needs to.

Marshall_Will said...

"The weather is the same. Some years are mild and some years are not so mild"

"Not so mild" sounds like a really diplomatic way to say 'cr@ppy'. Probably not the same summers she remembers as a child. Once in a blue moon I'll get a native O to come clean with me.

Their appraisal isn't much different than my own. Our weather has very most -definitely- changed. And changed for the worse. For those only setting down roots here POST El-ninyo, probably wouldn't know any better?.

But ah... the 70's here! That was something. Every summer better than the last. Hell, it wasn't like those of us in the First Wave didn't know the place had a struggling economy. That was laid bare. It was the WEATHER that appealed to us! And now it's driving us off... Things change, I got over it!

Marshall_Will said...

Oh and I'm taking bets!

We won't see an entire WEEK of 70+ weather until the last week of June!

Anywhere in Oregon!

H. Bruce Miller said...

Second half of June sounds about right. According to the Weather Channel, Bend's average high in June is only 72. There are only four months (June, July, August and September) in which the average high is above 70.

Marshall_Will said...

Depressing isn't it?

Another proof laid bare surfaces in the lunchroom at work ( for those of us w/ jobs )

O's generally, no ALWAYS love to portray themselves as outdoorsy and watching TV, well that just isn't manly!

Yet they know every line from last night's Comedy Central shows and give you play by play from (3) different games? It's a little white lie polite O's don't call each other out on...

Then come 'summer' well, old habits die hard.

H. Bruce Miller said...

Marshall: Many years ago, when I was at The Bulletin, we published a front page story headlined "Couch Potatoes in Paradise?" It was based on some national survey that found Bend had the highest rate of video rentals per capita in the country. Today, despite all the propaganda about the "healthy outdoor lifestyle," I'd bet Bend is still pretty high up there in terms of consumption of sedentary entertainment of all sorts -- TV, movies, videos, video games, etc. For one thing, the weather is too sucky for comfortable outdoor exercise much of the year. For another thing, there's a limit to how many hours a day you can spend working out -- and in Bend there isn't much else to do.

H. Bruce Miller said...

Another favorite ruse of Bendites (especially females) is to wear workout clothes all the time, whether they're working out that day or not. Of course I don't disapprove of that as long as the ladies have good bodies.

Jack Elliott said...

"Marshall: Many years ago, when I was at The Bulletin, we published a front page story headlined 'Couch Potatoes in Paradise?' It was based on some national survey that found Bend had the highest rate of video rentals per capita in the country."

Eastsiders.

H. Bruce Miller said...

"Eastsiders."

No; back in those days video players (VCRs) were a rare and expensive luxury and Eastsiders couldn't afford them, so it was predominantly Westsiders who were renting videos. I remember when Tom and Lindi DeWolf operated TWO video-and-yogurt stores on the Westside.