To see what that means and why it matters, consider some superficially very different cities whose stories have surprising points of resonance.
Greenville, South Carolina, and the Upstate
Every city has a cliché anecdote or slogan. By the sixth or seventh time you’ve heard it, you have a clearer idea not so much of the community’s reality but of what people believe that reality to be. For New York: “If you can make it there …” For Washington: “The most important city in the world.” For Austin, Burlington, Boulder, Seattle, Santa Monica: variations on “we’re so lucky to live here.” For Sioux Falls, South Dakota: “I grew up in a little farming town.”
After a few days in Greenville, South Carolina, we thought of its characteristic phrase as “Greenville? Are you kidding?” We heard it from many people, but here is the version told by Knox White, a 60-year-old lawyer who grew up in Greenville as part of an old local family and who, since 1995, has been its mayor. “I heard from the CEO of a company in Houston,” he told us. “It was transferring a division here, and one of their key talents said: ‘Greenville? Are you kidding?’ They wouldn’t come here—until they came here, kicking and screaming, and the next thing you know, they’d bought a house.”
We heard that story from a restaurant entrepreneur (plus several of his staffers), the founders of a start-up software firm, engineers originally from Germany and France, newspaper reporters, and on through a long list. Behind it is a conception of the town—people think we’re hicks, but we know we’ve developed something great—that depends on a series of specific achievements.
The best-known of those is the economic transformation of the part of inland South Carolina that abuts Georgia and North Carolina and is locally known as “the Upstate.” For much of the 20th century it was one of the world’s major textile-producing hubs. Greenville and its neighboring cities lie along the East Coast’s famous Fall Line, where the plateau stretching from the Appalachian Mountains meets the Atlantic coastal plain. This is also where rivers spill down from the mountains as rapids and waterfalls, and thus (as with their counterparts in New England) where the region’s first water-powered mills were set up. “Low country” Carolinians grew cotton and rice on their plantations, and “up country” merchants built water wheels to power their mills and made their area one of the South’s manufacturing centers.
For a century after the Civil War, up-country Carolina steadily grew as a textile center, built in part by mills that moved south from New England in search of cheaper labor. “Even in the early 1990s, textiles seemed to be a viable business employing tens of thousands of people,” says Steven Brandt, a Philadelphia-area native who took a job in Greenville in the late 1970s, liked it, and is now the publisher of the Gannett-owned daily The Greenville News. NAFTA took effect in 1994, and the World Trade Organization was created one year later. Both accelerated the inevitable move of textile mills to lower-cost sites in the Americas and Asia. Greenville County alone lost 6,000 textile-related jobs, and the state at least 50,000.