People are a salty ingredient to make cities work. In some cities, for example, the coffee is terrible and no one notices. Or the streets are immaculate and no one pays heed. In Pittsburgh there are no bakeries but once there were many. In Chicago, there is no lettuce. In Yakima, there are the husks of a lovely opera house and a handsome Nordstrom. In New Haven, the one-way streets have leached the sense of walking at all.
Our very hip corporations (Apple, Google, Facebook) exist by recruiting, an obvious and essential cunning. Ffiteen years ago, Microsoft could tell you who graduated first in their class, all over the world, and their blood types. Cities, which ought to woo people, instead woo corporations, often on the basest value, often with little mind to human consequence. Athletes, of course, are the quickest promise, so they get offers.
Most cities just push on, play the hand they are dealt, eat what is front of them. Good days and bad days. But what if they courted their own native sons and daughters, the ones who moved away and made successes in other cities?
By the late 1960s and '70s, by the glint of the duct- taped door latch at Watergate, there were quiet emigrations from the East Coast, headed to the West. Now, 40 years later, the whole country is tilted West and the Eastern Seaboard cities are still melting cheese on broiled fish.
But not every older city. North Carolina has a proud new influx of white families from the West, and South Carolina has a proud new influx of black families from urban Chicago and Detroit.
Here is a suggestion, a folly in part, but a notion for urban-talent drafting. Gather the city fathers and mothers, the council and the movers together, and make a list of the good ones who got away. Someone will know who to put on it: native sons and daughters who have, for one reason or another, succeeded elsewhere. Doctors and dancers, speakers and writers, thinkers and doers.
Then send them a letter, a letter of pride and praise, the kind of letter you routinely get from your cunning college alumni fund. But you are not looking for money — you are looking for much more than that. Ask them, straight out, what would it take for them to move back.
And mean it. This is going to cost you money, real money, but not near the money your faltering town has squandered. Ask them, what would it take? What would it take for you to come back to Hoboken and do it from here?
I have been posing this question to people who, like me, migrated West decades ago. They are not looking to move, but some things are missed, some were lost, and always some blood runs deep.
My friend from New Haven, for instance, is still mad at New Haven, and nothing less than the streets returned to two-way, two true hat shops, an apartment in the venerable old Taft Hotel right next to Yale, and a fish market — for nothing less would he ever settle.
Or the director of nursing from St. Louis: yes, she would return, but not until all smoking was banned in the metropolitan area. Or the San Francisco choreographer, with three young children: he would need their college tuitions guaranteed, wherever they want to go, for he knows he will always be busy but he will never have that kind of money. And a house, on Hartford's Sigourney Street if it could be, with the lovely maples.
Or young Kristin, who came out to Seattle right from graduate school, towing a $100,000 education debt and still is waiting for work as an architect. She is an enviable generation of immigrants — smart and brave and healthy and loyal. She asked me, how would Buffalo get her back? Easy, I said, we pay all the school loans and you start work next week!
Imagine the full page ad in a national newspaper: Buffalo Wants You! We Pay College Loans!!
But how could you pay for this, a many million dollar vague investment in people? The cities are broke, the lotteries and Indian casinos only pay for potholes, the taxes have leaked like a prison breakout.
But, in another sense, it is quite close. Consider the Facebook factor, the true engine behind the website. For Facebook, people are the money, the inventory, the product, the pod. If nothing else is revealed, it is the commerce of people, the indefinable but sensual involvement of humans, that is the street worth.
People, salty people, make a city, people make the food better and the arts better and the ethics better, people repel the corrupt and feed the hopes. Crudely put, Seattle has better coffee because it now insists on better coffee. Not because it always knew.
Drafting teams for urbanism? A sort of folly, maybe, but only until someone does it well before you. Fix the one-way streets, ban smoking, pay three college tuitions. If they bring you people who cannot help but make matters better, it may, in the end, be a cunning business.