Thursday, May 5, 2016

Is there a "rural" Jane Jacobs for the Iron Range?

[UPDATE: LA Review of Books -- Jane Jacobs: The Greatest Thinker of the 20th Century

Yesterday was Jane Jacobs birthday and "May the Fourth" always be with her. There was a very nice profile of her yesterday in the guardian newspaper. It helped me remember how much her writing helped shape my world view when I was a practicing planner. It still does, so the profile also started me wondering if rural towns and cities had the equivalent of a Jane Jacobs. It turns out, based on a few Google searches, that they do, her name is Jane Jacobs. Ms. Jacobs summarizes her perspective on rural development in The Economy of Regions, part of the "THIRD ANNUAL E. F. SCHUMACHER LECTURES." See how well the following description seems to fit our "Iron Range"  by replacing "Bardou" with "the Iron Range" in the following paragraph from her essay:
"Bardou is a microcosmic example of a passive economy, meaning an economy that is shaped and reshaped by forces that do not originate within itself but come from outside, specifically from distant cities. Like a toy on a string, time and again Bardou has been jerked by this powerful external economic energy. In ancient times it was exploited for its iron, then abandoned. In modern times it was depopulated by the pull of city jobs and income, then later repopulated by city people. The jerks were never gentle. But when cities and their people had no uses for Bardou and simply let it alone, the place either had no economy whatever, as when it was a wilderness, or else a subsistence economy that remained unchanging. Bardou's history is unique but only in the sense that every place, like every person and every snowflake, is unique. Otherwise, the same kinds of changes and events to be found in Bardou's story are duplicated in principle in many other passive economies and on a large, regional scale."
St. Louis River
St. Louis River
Photo by J. Harrington
Then, consider how well the following fits "the Range:"
"Sometimes supply regions are called, in a shorthand we all understand, "colonial" economies. The epithet embodies this piece of truth: imperial powers have typically shaped conquered territories into regions supplying a narrow range of rural or resource goods for distant markets. But the term "colonial" is too optimistic because by reverse implication it suggests that if alien domination of some sort is thrown off, a stunted and narrow economy producing poorly on its own behalf will proceed to become well-rounded and less economically dependent on its narrow specialties. Yet the stultification is not that easily corrected. When Castro disposed of American influence in Cuba, he did not throw off Cuba's servitude to sugar. Indeed, many a supply region, far from being forced into its role, actually courts it or else slides into it for sheer default of alternative ways to make a living.

"Supply regions are often poor, and thus the stultification of their economies is often attributed to poverty. But a rich supply region is as stunted and stultified as a poor one. The shortcomings of these regions go deeper than poverty. Although supply regions are warped into their narrow, unbalanced economies by the power of distant city markets, those distant cities are powerless to straighten them out. Only vigorous, innovative, and productive cities of their own, generating city regions instead of supply regions, can perform that service for supply regions."
If we credit Ms. Jacobs with relevant insight, and I see no reason not to, it would seem that more mining, of whatever types, including renewed and improved "taconite" mining, isn't the key to future success for Minnesota's Iron Range. If you read the entire essay, and you should, the prospect of "the Range" fulfilling a role as part of Duluth's and/or the Twin Cities regional economies offers hopeful prospects. Or, if those who claim to be leaders on the Range can put aside parochial, internally competitive perspectives long enough, the Range could even aspire to the type of solution offered at the end of Jacob's final paragraph in the essay.
"Any region with an innovative and import-replacing city of its own becomes capable of producing amply and diversely for its own people and producers as well as for others, again no matter what its given natural attributes. Such a city and its city region also automatically become capable of shaping and reshaping the economies of distant regions lacking vigorous cities of their own, shaping them for better or for worse. Too often the shaping is either disappointing or disastrous, but there is no remedy for that other than the emergence of vigorous cities in regions that lack them and need them. Back in 1377 a Tunisian scholar and historian, Ibn Khaldun, explained that the Bedouins of the desert, who sold animal products and grain to urban people, would remain economically weak and dependent "as long as they live in the desert and have not acquired . . . control of the cities." True to a point. But he might have added, "or as long as they do not create a city of their own."

Believing in Iron

The hills my brothers & I created
Never balanced, & it took years
To discover how the world worked.
We could look at a tree of blackbirds
& tell you how many were there,
But with the scrap dealer
Our math was always off.
Weeks of lifting & grunting
Never added up to much,
But we couldn’t stop
Believing in iron.
Abandoned trucks & cars
Were held to the ground
By thick, nostalgic fingers of vines
Strong as a dozen sharecroppers.
We’d return with our wheelbarrow
Groaning under a new load, 
Yet tiger lilies lived better
In their languid, August domain.
Among paper & Coke bottles
Foundry smoke erased sunsets,
& we couldn’t believe iron
Left men bent so close to the earth
As if the ore under their breath
Weighed down the gray sky.
Sometimes I dreamt how our hills
Washed into a sea of metal,
How it all became an anchor
For a warship or bomber
Out over trees with blooms
Too red to look at.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.