I knew it would be a mistake to get involved in designing a project already under construction. A successful home renovation typically requires a year of design effort before it is safe for anyone to go near a hammer. A lot of aimless "what if?" explorations have to be engaged without the pressure of making final decisions. There's a lot of practical stuff to figure out, too: budgets and building codes and building permits and which walls are holding up the roof. Homeowners who begin construction without first doing these things are digging a bigger hole than any expert will be able to dig them out of once construction has started. An architect foolish enough to step into this breach is likely making a grave professional error.
Hudsonians—even those who disagree about almost everything else—seem to almost universally agree that it would be best for Hudson if the majority of our businesses were created, owned, and run by Hudsonians. So why do we have in place a development model whose essential structure is built upon the attracting of businesses? Why does this model essentially insist that the people who are already already here create little to nothing? Why do we define economic growth as something that arrives from beyond?
Let me be clear: I am not saying Etsy shouldn't be here. That is not my point or my belief. What I am saying is that the model that brought Etsy here is not a sustainable one. It is not in any way a creative model, although some mistake the fact of Etsy's dealings in creative wares for the underlying fact that the economic development model behind its arrival is non-creative. Frankly, I wonder how it can be considered a development model at all, when it amounts to cherrypicking the fruits of a development process that took place somewhere else.
The great, unrecognized poison of American economic development today is the ubiquitous notion that localities need to "attract businesses." At some level, the notion is absurd. As E. F. Schumacher once noted, "We did not start development by obtaining foreign exchange from Mars or from the moon. Mankind is a closed society." [Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered] Yet the belief that economic growth necessarily comes from without drives the mission statement of the nonprofit Hudson Development Corporation: "[We] promote and assist current businesses and provide opportunities and assistance to attract new businesses." Note that there is no acknowledgment of the genesis of new businesses. Ditto for the Columbia-Hudson Partnership: "We act as a facilitator... for businesses seeking to expand their current operations in the county, or locate new facilities here." Both mission statements allow only for the growth and attraction of existing businesses. To wander a bit farther afield for a moment, New York City's Director of Planning, in the first paragraph of her website statement, writes, "I welcome the opportunity to plan and develop places in which people will love to live and work—the vibrant places that will attract and hold creative talent." How poisoned our development well must be when the planner for a city of more than 8 million people thinks it essential to attract anyone at all. But this is the default economic development mentality in America today.
Like every city, Hudson has talents and ideas and manpower within its borders, but we are forbidding them to flourish. "Cities," the late Jane Jacobs wrote in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." Why are we unwilling to build from within, allowing everybody to create? Why are we not willing to develop our own resources? Why aren't we encouraging the messy stab at new businesses instead of outlawing them? To seek economic development by attracting fully formed businesses is to sell your own people short. It is to tell them—even if you say otherwise—that you don't want them to be productive, involved members of the local culture. It is to tell them you don't want the mess that comes from seeing them live creatively. It is, in essence, to order the twenty-somethings out of your community until their ideas are fully formed. Then, and only then, are they welcome to come back.
To close with a somewhat finer point: not all messiness is of equal value. Not all messiness is constructive. The point is not that messiness is inherently good, but that messiness in life and in cities cannot be escaped. One can choose either the good messiness that is part and parcel to the creative process, or the bad messiness that comes from prohibiting creative endeavor. In other words, we can have either a messy Columbia Street or State Street that results from its residents becoming creative, self-directed entrepreneurs, or we can have the kind of messiness that blights a neighborhood and destroys its buildings when its residents aren't able to generate wealth for themselves. Wouldn't you rather have the good kind of mess than the bad kind we now have?