Two years ago at this time, when my wife, Deb, and I were in our fourth year of travel across the country to report on smaller towns, we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the lakefront city of Erie, Pennsylvania.
The initial attraction was a primal sense of topophilia on Deb’s part, or fondness for a particular landscape. She had grown up in a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, 150 miles to the west on the other side of Cleveland. The summer-evening sky, air, and sound of Erie’s lake walks were as familiar for her as they were exotic to me.
As we made return trips (even in colder weather) and learned more about the layers of modern Erie, we became more absorbed by it, and connected to it, on both intellectual and emotional levels.
The intellectual appeal is one I set out two years ago in a post called “Erie and America.” It was based on the area’s role as a collision-point and real-time arena for almost every significant trend in modern American society, negative and positive alike. The way this balance plays out in Erie, and in similarly-situated places we visited like San Bernardino and Fresno and Allentown and Charleston, West Virginia, will help determine which will be the dominant tone in the next stage of American life. Will it be the poison, dysfunction, polarization, and mistrust of national-level politics? Or the widespread, dispersed signs of renewal that Deb and I have argued, in our Atlantic articles and our new book Our Towns, can be the proving-grounds and momentum-builders for the next era of national renewal?
That drama is fully on display in Erie.
At first glance the city can seem a shorthand for America’s heavy-industrial distress—a huge vacant downtown factory with broken-out skylights, amid smaller also-abandoned workshops; local news accounts about the latest in the long, sad string of layoffs at GE’s mainstay locomotive plant. (Whose production lines, by the way, are being moved not to Mexico or China but to Texas.) Every social ill of contemporary America has left its mark on Erie: racial polarization and tension (including a recent calculation that Erie was “the worst city for black Americans,” in terms of income gap relative to whites), the abuse of opioids and other drugs, homelessness, job loss, and a cruelly unfair state school-funding system whose consequences were so dire that a few years back city threatened simply to close its public high schools.
Yet on second glance—and fifth, and 10th—this same, battered Erie became even more remarkable to us as the locus of countervailing, creative forces.
I won’t go through the whole list again, which we discussed in articles you can find here (and in our book). But the elements include an ambitious higher-ed establishment, with several liberal-arts universities plus Penn State’s Behrend campus, where I spent an afternoon looking at advanced-manufacturing initiatives (like successful ones I’d seen from South Carolina to Michigan to Kentucky to California). We also witnessed an accelerated version of a formula we had seen in a number of other midwest and northeastern “Rust Belt” cities trying to turn themselves into a “Chrome Belt”: The hope of offsetting the loss of native-born young families by recruiting, welcoming, and integrating immigrants and refugees (as Deb explained here and here). Erie also boasts a downtown revival movement, led simultaneously by the city’s home-grown and downtown-based Fortune 500 company, Erie Insurance, whose longtime CEO and now chairman, Tom Hagen, is in his 80s; by successful tech entrepreneurs like Joel Deuterman, now in his 50s; and by a 20s-and-30s generation of artists, activists, technologists, and business people (who you can see in a great video here).
Erie has an active performing-arts and music scene. Its Jefferson Educational Society runs ambitious live events and research programs, in a model that is a rough counterpart to California’s Commonwealth Club or the 92nd Street Y in New York. We became fans of the alt-weekly Erie Reader. In the same downtown building as the Reader’s offices is a tech startup space, called Radius CoWork, similar to what you’d find in any hip town. (See for yourself.)
These conflicting trends—so discouraging, potentially so positive—have made the city intellectually compelling. Over our months of exposure, the people, of all ages and a wide range of backgrounds, who have thrown themselves into this renewal effort have won our emotional support.
And one small group of them has won our business support as well.
A cumulative surprise of our travels since 2013 was what I thought of as talent-dispersion, or the “reverse talent flow.” There are more and more opportunities, for a larger range of businesses, in more places away from the big cities, than there were a decade or two ago. A detectable flow of people are taking advantage of them.
Through modern history, ambitious people from the hinterland have sought their fortune in the biggest, most vibrant metropolises. Englanders and Scots going to London, French provincials to Paris, Chinese to Shanghai and now Shenzhen, and Americans to the metropolises mainly on the coasts. For as long as American literature has existed, it has chronicled the movement of people from farm, to village, to each era’s booming urban centers. (Pick your American classic novel, from Sister Carrie to Invisible Man, and you’re likely to find elements of this theme.)
That concentrating flow will of course continue, as one glance at construction cranes in Seattle or housing prices in the Bay Area will confirm. But a combination of those same hyper-inflated real-estate costs, and the rise of location-specific high-value industries (like “precision agriculture” startups in farming areas ) plus ever-improving tools for remote work, have powered what tech entrepreneur Steve Case calls the “rise of the rest.” By that he means increased opportunities for talented people who might have moved to Chicago or Boston or LA, but who decide that the overall prospects are more promising in Birmingham or Columbus or Omaha.
In our travels we have met some of these people, and we’ve written about the new business niches they had found, with: agriculture-related technology, in South Dakota and Central Valley California; aerospace technology, in Minnesota and Oregon; logistics and advanced retail systems in Ohio; high-value manufacturing in Kansas and South Carolina and Kentucky; plus other opportunities elsewhere.
And, in the case of Erie, web-design work from Epic Web Studios.
Epic’s co-founders are David Hunter, now age 34 and CEO, and Shaun Rajewski, now 29 and lead developer. They started the company nine years ago, at ages 25 and 20, respectively (and in the depths of the post-2008 financial crash), on the belief that it would be possible to create a first-tier Internet-design company far away from the normal tech centers, in the place where they had grown up. They had no outside capital or investors, and they ran the company initially on the “self-exploitation” financing model familiar from so many startup stories.
Hunter had worked in New York but wanted to come home to start a business and raise a family (with his wife, Jessica, also an Erie native). “After high school, I left Erie as soon as possible, eager to leave the region in search of ‘bigger and better,’” he told me. “I started college at Fordham in New York. I loved it there, but after a lot of consideration, I realized how important my family and my friends really were to me so during my junior year I decided to move back to Erie with an entirely different outlook on the city.”
Rajewski’s story is like that of some other tech entrepreneurs we met in Erie (and their counterparts in Greenville and Duluth and Redlands and Fresno etc). The similarity is that as Epic has grown, he has continued to re-decide to stay in his small community (with his wife, Karrah and their family), rather than take offers with Facebook, Google, or other big-time companies in the Bay Area or Seattle.
Over these nine-plus years, Epic has become a modest but steadily expanding success. It has some 400 clients for its web work, in North America and internationally. It has developed an app intended to help local newspapers in the pursuit of their Holy Grail (that is, engagement and “stickiness” from local readers), and other apps like ASAPmaps, which is intended to help local businesses improve their visibility within Google maps. Epic argues that its services match what’s available anywhere else, but that its prices can be much lower, because of the difference in salaries and real-estate costs.
Hunter and Rajewski have created more than a dozen full-time tech jobs in Erie — not many in the grand scheme of things, but a dozen more than would exist without them. Like other locally founded tech firms we’ve seen around the country, they view their own survival and success as being closely connected with the whole city’s prospects. Thus Epic does extensive volunteer work for local non-profits and civic institutions, the value of which Hunter says comes to over half a million dollars of in-kind contribution.
“Epic's workforce includes a lot of folks who are from Erie, moved away to start a career, and were recruited back to the region to work with our team,” Hunter told me this week in an email. “Others were planning to leave the region and stayed because of the opportunity to grow their career while contributing to the growth of Erie, PA.”
Why do I mention all this? Not just because it’s another local data point but also because Deb and I took Epic’s work seriously enough to start doing business with them ourselves, as customers. Two years ago, Epic’s team developed a website for a civic group in Washington D.C. that we are part of, and whose background I have described here. (News updates for the site are here.)
Like all modern authors, we also have a website for our new book. This, too, is something we wanted Epic to develop for us (it’s here). As the months go on we plan to work with them, as normal customers, to expand this as a platform for exchanging the kinds of stories we have heard around the country, connecting people and groups large (like New America or Esri) and small (like the Center for Rural Affairs) that are working toward similar ends in different locations, and using maps and other tools to illustrate both problems and solutions.
Does the business our family provides matter? In any grand sense, obviously not. I mention it to show that our observation about talent-dispersal is more than just talk on our part. We take it seriously enough that we are willing to vote with our personal dollars, to present our own message through this company’s staff and skills.
“I am incredibly passionate about my hometown of Erie, PA,” David Hunter said in a recent message to me. “The city is a lot of fun (we're one of only 8 cities nationwide that lets you drink in the streets!), it’s incredibly affordable (here's a 5,400 sq. ft. Victorian Mansion for sale at $139,900), and there's always something new going on (here's a sample of the calendar for just one week ).”
The Onion offers periodic dispatches from Don Turnbee, “America’s Fast-Food Critic,” who is always identified as hailing from Erie. Hunter said that he takes perverse joy and pride in those Onion shout-outs, as part of a younger-generation embrace of the city’s defiant-underdog status. (This is an attitude we also saw among Hunter’s counterparts in places like San Bernardino, Fresno, Ajo, and Duluth.) “Erie’s been a weird city (in a good way) for as long as I can remember,” he told me. “I think Erie’s weirdness, though hard to quantify, is one of our greatest assets because it makes us a unique place that’s hard to forget.”
As for the city’s problems, “there are certainly plenty of examples that make it difficult to live here as well,” he says. “To pretend it’s some sort of utopia would never work because the city is full of cold, thankless and unflattering qualities too. But there are countless people who work to improve those things every single day. I am incredibly thankful for their efforts because I see the change happening before my eyes every day.”
How will Erie look 10 years from now? I have no idea, just as I cannot say how the struggle between national-level darkness and local-level renewal will eventually balance out. But I offer the story of Epic Web Studios and its founders and staff as one more illustration of how different the texture of the country can look from a city-by-city perspective, than it does from the bleak prospect of the national news.