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When you hear the name Nashville, what comes to mind?
It’s safe to say that “country music” would be a common response. How about New York? Broadway, perhaps, or Wall Street. Likewise, mention Los Angeles, and most people will think, “Hollywood.”
Many smaller cities and towns have such strong name recognition as well. Woodstock, New York, for example, will forever be associated with hippies, in spite of the fact that the iconic music festival took place elsewhere.
By contrast, mention “Hampton Roads” outside of this area, and what sort of reactions do you think you’ll get? Blank looks, more than likely.
Acutely aware of this problem, a group of community leaders from across the region got together last year in hopes of coming up with a solution. After nine months of meetings and research, they announced with great fanfare that they had found one: We must embrace and promote “The 757” as our “brand.”
You can read all about this, if you’re so inclined, in the group’s report: Envision2020. (envisioning2020.com).
Like most reports generated by committees and consultants—a deadly combination, if ever there was one—the report is laden with hyperbole.
“There is no other word or sentiment that ties us together more,” the report asserts. “When people use 757, it represents both the region overall and all the individual parts as well — 757 is everything!”
On December 29, three of the younger members of the group weighed in with comparable overstatements in an op-ed piece in The Virginian-Pilot, claiming that “we are undeniably united under the regional brand of the 757.”
Well, not quite. When word of this initiative hit Facebook it was greeted with widespread scorn.
We are, in fact, undeniably divided. Many old-timers, for example, favor the term “Tidewater.” That at least says something by suggesting that we’re surrounded by water. But few people outside this area have any idea where Tidewater is. More recently, some folks have embraced “Coastal Virginia.” That’s a bit better, since it adds the name of the state. It’s still pretty vague, though.
“The 757” is the worst of all.
Proponents argue that it’s been in use, as slang, for a couple of decades, and so it has. “That’s what we used to call it when I was in high school,” my now-30-year-old daughter told me recently. Still, it never caught on in a big way. I have many friends in their 20s and 30s, and I’ve rarely heard them use it. At any rate, it certainly never meant anything to anyone outside this region.
Undaunted by this reality, the “Envision” boosters are forging ahead, pinning their hopes on the notion that “the 757” will build regional “pride” and will, in particular, appeal to “young people.”
“We are nothing without them,” says one man in a “757” promotional video released on the heels of the report. As the video drags on, other folks echo this sentiment. But nothing about it rings true. On the contrary, the pandering made me cringe. It reminded me of middle-aged men in the 1960s who made a point of using the word “groovy” every chance they got.
THIS ‘BRANDING’ INITIATIVE appears to have been based in part on a warmed-over misinterpretation of Richard Florida’s thesis in The Rise of the Creative Class, published in 2002. Florida argued that a city’s prospects for economic vitality in the new millennium would depend on its ability to attract members of the “creative class”—roughly one third of the workforce for whom creativity is “a key factor” in the workplace. In order to draw these people, he further asserted, cities would need to develop cultural environments that appealed to the values of this group.
Many folks equated the “creative class” with “young people.” But when I asked Florida in one of several conversations I had with him at the time, he told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t intend for it to be read that way. He was talking about psychographics, not demographics.
A decade later, moreover, Florida admitted that his thesis was flawed. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he noted in a January 2013 article for Citylab.com, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account…. On close inspection,” he added, “talent-clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”
Let’s assume for the moment, however, that there are at least some benefits to cultivating the kind of urban environments that are attractive to the “creative class.” Will a branding initiative have any impact on this?
There is no reason to believe that it will. And this, ultimately, has nothing to do with the merits of any particular brand.
In order for a brand to be effective, the “product” itself must have a distinctive identity. Hampton Roads is utterly lacking in such an identity because it is an artificial construct. Sure, the various cities of this region are connected by bridges and tunnels and highways—and many people live in one city while commuting to another for work. But that doesn’t make Hampton Roads a unified region, in spite of what these boosters would have you believe. I’ve been listening to them talk about regional-cooperation initiatives for nearly three decades—and little has changed, with the exception of the success of the Virginia Arts Festival, which is truly a regional enterprise.
Most other efforts at regional unification have failed spectacularly—the most glaring example being Norfolk’s light-rail “starter line,” which ends at Newtown Road because Virginia Beach wanted nothing to do with it.
As I’ve argued many times over the decades, there is only one solution to this: merge the cities of the Southside, at least, into one municipality in the same way that the boroughs of New York were merged in 1898—over fierce objection from many Brooklynites, I might add.
If that were to happen, the only logical name for the city would be “Norfolk.” Never mind that Virginia Beach has more residents. Brooklyn has a far bigger residential population than New York County (i.e., Manhattan), but this doesn’t change the fact that the city as a whole is known as “New York”—the island where the metropolis was born. The truth is, every other metro area in the country is known by the name of its core city.
Such a merger will never happen here, of course, because the state legislature would need to get behind it, and there’s no political will to do so.
Short of an official merger, calling this region “Greater Norfolk”—or simply “Norfolk”—is the only “brand” that makes sense. But in the end, no name or brand will have a transformative effect.
The fundamental problem with Hampton Roads is that it lacks synergy—the phenomenon of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. (For an in-depth consideration of this, see Synergetics, by Buckminster Fuller—a book that came out a decade before “synergy” became a buzzword in the corporate world.) The harsh reality is that Hampton Roads is afflicted with anti-synergy: the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
I have no doubt that the boosters behind the 757 initiative will accuse me of being too “negative”—a charge to which I would respond, was the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” being “negative” when he pointed out that the emperor was actually buck naked?
No, I’m just calling it as I see it. The individual cities of this area have a lot to offer, each in their own way. But that has never translated into regional identity, and it never will. Our civic leaders should stop pretending otherwise.