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Monday, January 16, 2012

Reflections on my old home town

Steve Malanaga wrote an Op-Ed piece in the WSJ which took me back to my childhood. I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Oddly enough my recollections were almost Shangri La like. It was a wonderful place to grow up, particularly if you had nothing to compare it to from the perspective of climate. I thought everyone played pick up basketball outdoors at -20F wearing a parka and mittens. There was also a certain appeal of women whose natural curves were augmented by down filler.

However years have past (many) and the shine has worn off. While I grew up there, Buffalo was clearly off its peak but there were many other less affluent and less thriving communities in the US. That has changed and if it were not for places like Detroit, Buffalo could take the prize as the most fallen from economic grace.

I had not ventured back to visit for many years until 2001 when I was invited to give a seminar at the University by a colleague who had moved to Buffalo to run a training program. I thought it would it would be great to wander around my old haunts and visit the few old family friends who still remained. It turned out to be an odd trip at many levels.

The visit was planned for around September 18, 2001. It almost did not happen because of 9/11. However, I took one of the first flights after airline travel was restored. On the way to the airport, I listened to a lecture from the Teaching Company. I am a TC freak. The lecture series was on the history of the United States and the specific lecture was focused on the US at the turn of the last century..1900. It centered on what was then arguably the richest city in the country. You guessed it... Buffalo, NY. The lecturer spoke of the confluence of transportation systems, the steel mills belching smoke, and the vistas of grain elevators.

I recall flying into Buffalo after listening to this lecture and our approach to the airport actually took us over the sites of those previous thriving industrial sites. How things had changed. What I saw were the rusted hulks of those majestic enterprises and the land was well into reclaiming them. The good news is Lake was much cleaner than I recall. No longer is the small boat harbour water stained orange from the slag from the Bethlehem Steel plant. The bad news is, Buffalo has joined the ranks of a number of more pristine but very poor places on this earth. Both the pollution and the jobs left.

Which brings me back to Steve Malanga's Op-Ed piece. What takes a place like Buffalo from richest to poorest in slightly more than 100 years? Is that a rapid transition or a gradual one? Is it surprising or predictable? Are transitions like this consistently preventable or inevitable? Will we be looking back at Silicon Valley in 100 years and have witnessed the same thing? Will Buffalo undergo a revival and become a destination location?

What makes some places rich and other places not so much so? The answer is wealth as as one of my favorite authors P.J. O'Rourke has written in his hilariously funny books "Eat the Rich" we tend to have little understanding of this process. Creating wealth and the entities that create wealth is not like baking a cake. Even under the best of circumstances we can and should expect failures. In addition, we should expect radical change. Entities which support the enduring generation of wealth are entities that are prepared to reinvent themselves, even if it means their reinvented selves look little like their own selves.

Places like Buffalo die because they tried to hold on to what they were and failed to empower those who might create a new and different Buffalo. Large infusion of political dollars do what they do best; preserve their political bases. They do not create wealth because that tends to upset the political status quo. What will bring back Buffalo? I don't know and I would venture to guess that no single person knows. However the decisions in the political realm which can help can best be described as permissive. At best they can allow them to happen. In the present state the default is to prevent them.

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