News: Charlotte Exclusives

Fables of the Deconstruction

Steering clear of the metro-retro myth

Once upon a time just about the only place open past midnight in Charlotte was the Krispy Kreme on Independence Blvd. Yes, the Krispy Kreme, singular. Nice enough for the late night sugar fix, but a little lacking in the wild nightlife department as the donut-to-cop ratio was at best 2-to-1.

Fast forward a couple decades and Charlotte is lousy with a variety of actual niteclubs and restaurants that are open late and do not require you to sit at a counter. Unless it’s a sushi bar. But a new analysis of American society pretends this kind of change never happened.

The so-called Great Divide analysis posits there exists a metro America and a retro America. Metro is marked “by common interests in promoting economic modernity and by shared cultural values marked by religious moderation; vibrant popular cultures; a tolerance of differences of class, ethnicity, tastes, and sexual orientation.” Retro gets “religiosity; social conservatism; an economic base of extraction industries, agriculture, nondurable goods manufacturing, [and] military installations.”

Guess which category Charlotte and the South fall into?

Thankfully, long-time observer of America’s social and economic trends Joel Kotkin is on the case. Writing in The Washington Post Kotkin notes that, “the assertion that the ‘retro’ states represent the economic past is a vast, and dangerous, exaggeration. Wyoming and Mississippi may still be backward, but it’s absurd to write off North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas as technological laggards.”

Kotkin also points out the real problems the supposedly “modern” metro states like Massachusetts now confront:

Since 2000, the Boston economy has been among the worst in the nation in terms of job losses, many of them in higher-end business service and technology fields. Since 2002, nearly 40,000 Boston area residents have left the labor force. The city itself, after enjoying a small population gain in the 1990s, has been losing residents since 2000.

Overall, notes Michael Goodman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts’s Donahue Institute, the state is hemorrhaging young middle-class families — largely to ‘retro’ states such as Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, as well as neighboring low-tax New Hampshire.

It is also hard to overlook that Bank of America’s $47 billion merger with Fleet First Boston will transplant jobs, influence, and wealth from metroland to retroville. What does that say about the future? Could it be that the retro model is more efficient and actually more responsive to changes in underlying economic conditions?

The metro-retro analysis also contains an attempt to cast retro-land as some Third Worldish backwater, heavily dependent on extracting natural resources and producing few high-value goods. Suffice it to say that as dependence theory never explained the actual Third World very well, the theory is of no use in explaining Atlanta or Charlotte.

The inescapable conclusion is that metro-retro really does not explain very much at all. Much of metro-retro is liberal bi-coastal bias bordering on bigotry. No doubt some people very much enjoy living in very dense mega-cities. Some folks opt for Green Acres. But a lot of us prefer a little of both.

It should be self-evident that most people just do not fit either extreme in America. In the vernacular, you can take the boy out of the retro but you can’t take the retro out of the boy.

Those responsible for The Great Divide would know this if they had bothered to go to a place like Blacksburg, Virginia. There Virginia Tech students spend their downtime away from the home of the world-class Terascale Computing Facility in the nearby wooded foothills hiking, camping, and such. If the metros hurry they can make Blacksburg’s Urban Archery Season which starts next week. Target: Bambi.

The retro-metro dichotomy breaks down when confronted with real people or places, even places without large college campuses. Consider the 125-year-old town of Matthews on Charlotte’s southeast flank that boasts not one, but two latte shops, neither one part of a retrograde national chain. Yet across the street sits Renfrow Hardware the kind of independent general store that many small towns depended on the 1920 and 30s. And just steps from the railroad tracks that mark the town as a classic 19th century rail stop a new Thai restaurant is set to open.

Metro or retro? Something to ponder over a plate of pud nam mun hoy once you’ve picked up a bag of seed and some fertilizer. Spread a few copies of The Great Divide around and you should be able to grow about anything.