Dante Chinni

Dante Chinni
journalist, co-author "Our Patchwork Nation"
Washington, D.C.

Tottered on: 7 April 2011
Temperature: 47 F
Ceiling: partly sunny
Ground: porch deck
Wind: E at 8 mph


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TT with HD: Dante Chinni


[Ed. note: DC coauthored "Our Patchwork Nation" with James Gimpel. Detailed interactive maps available on the Patchwork Nation (PWN) website.]

HD: So, welcome to the teeter totter.

DC: Thank you, it's good to be here.

HD: So you are originally from Warren? Do I have that right?



DC: I am. I grew up in Warren ... my father passed away last year, my mother still lives in Sterling Heights. Metro Detroit.

HD: So you know this part of the country in some sense.

DC: Pretty well, yes.

HD: But that is at least three counties away from here, right?

DC: Yeah. You would have to go from here through Wayne County up to Macomb County, about midway through Macomb to Sterling Heights. I guess my mom is about midway through Mocomb.



HD: So the Patchwork Nation premise takes the county as a unit of analysis, and you know, I focused solely on Washtenaw County, as anybody would ...

DC: ... [laugh] ...

HD: ... you flip to the section that describes your neck of the woods ...

DC: ... yes, that's true, absolutely, yes.

HD: And it didn't really even occur to me to say, Gosh, the counties surrounding Washtenaw, I wonder what they are like. Do you know off the top of your head how Wayne County and Macomb County were categorized [in PWN]?

DC: Wayne County qualifies as an "Industrial Metropolis" in large part because of Detroit. The "Industrial Metropolis," they generally take in the inner ring suburbs as well, so it's actually a pretty good fit for that. Macomb County is a "Monied Burb," which I think some people in Macomb County would laugh at--they would say it's not rich. And it's not rich--compared to Oakland County. You might think it's not wealthy because you live next to wealthy people, but McComb's actually a pretty wealthy place.



HD: Well, Washtenaw County scored second highest on "Monied Burb" [that is, its second-best fit for a category was "Monied Burb"]...

DC: ... which would make sense.

HD: Do you recall how close it was between "Monied Burb" and then the actual classification which was "Campus...



DC: ... "Campus and Careers." It was not all that close. I mean there is definitely money here. And there's education. But the university is just such a big factor in this county. I actually just got done meeting with somebody from the university and you have, you know, in the last four years the University of Michigan alone has generated 4,000 jobs.

HD: Was it Jim Kosteva that you were talking to?

DC: It might have been! Yes, it was. [laugh]

HD: [laugh]



DC: But that is the kind of stuff that we know, I mean I know that, but I have never heard the number put to it before. And when you consider what most people think of southeastern Michigan who don't live here--I mean most people who don't live here view Michigan as Detroit. They don't even really think of the northern part of Michigan. And when you tell them that, Oh, no the county right next door to it, the unemployment rate is really only about, what, six or seven percent ...

HD: ... is that where we stand right now? I thought it was a little higher, but it's not something I really track. [Ed. note: Chinni's right.]

DC: I think so. But you know you guys have actually done really well. And it's because, I suppose there are negatives to having a university in your backyard, too, because you can't collect property taxes. But you know, you get a lot, because of that. That's a big powerful university.

HD: But because the county is the unit of analysis, it's not maybe quite a slam dunk for "Campus and Careers" as maybe it would be if the city were the unit of analysis?

DC: Oh, absolutely.

HD: Based on the results of the 2010 census, the city of Ann Arbor lost a some tiny amount, not a huge amount, but in any case the trend was in the wrong direction. We didn't lose as much as Detroit, but nobody lost as much as Detroit.

DC: ... [laugh] Right.

HD: But the rest of the county itself actually saw growth. Which I assume is not necessarily, or maybe it was driven just by the university.



DC: I think it was, actually. I think what you're seeing is that as the university is getting bigger, those people move and work in the area, and Ann Arbor has suburbs. Ann Arbor does have, there is suburban Ann Arbor--as much as that is hard to believe. I think you also get some people living here who work in Wayne County. But there aren't many people who live here who work west of Washtenaw. There isn't a whole lot out there when you get west of Washtenaw, until you get much further west over to over by Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. It's a different feel over there.

But I actually think probably what a lot of what is driving the growth in Washtenaw County is the university. I mean the university has created 4,000 jobs in the last four years. In the last decade, god knows how much it's created. Now you have lost some things--you have lost Pfizer. You may lose Borders. You've lost jobs from Borders already. But I actually think that when you consider the losses that you have had from those things and the additions that you have had due to the university, I bet it's a net gain ... I bet you've had a net gain in jobs, it depends on how you draw the lines, I suppose.

HD: So that's a net gain in ...?

DC: ... net gain in the number of people actually employed in Washtenaw County, not just who live here. We can talk about whether or not that is due just to the university.



HD: So with the new census data there is an opportunity to go back and redo the entire [Patchwork Nation] analysis, right?

DC: Yep. And we will do that, actually, yeah.

HD: So is that something that is just a matter of dumping the data in, formatted correctly, and just letting the factor analysis do its thing? Or I mean how much art and how much pure turning-the-crank is it?

DC: I actually just had this conversation with somebody last week: How much of it is art, and how much of it is science? My feeling is it's a lot of science. I think when you do the vast majority of counties in America it is a matter of turning the crank. The art of it, the hard part, is figuring out how the factor analysis works, there's an art to that. Once you have created a formula, it really is turning the crank.

HD: So once you have done the exploratory factor analysis you say okay ...

DC: ... we're going to say this to be worth this much, that is worth that much, this is a more important than that factor, that ...

HD: ... and there's going to be 12 categories...

DC: ... right, there's going to be 12 categories...

HD: ... even though we might be able to justify 15 or maybe reduce it to 11...

DC: ... yep...

HD: ... so once you settle on your model that produces your 12 categories then you can essentially dump things in and say, Okay, that's what we get.

DC: I would say that's definitely true with the exception of 3-5% of the counties, when you get down to the very end, even when you dump everything in and turn the crank, you say, that 3% is pretty tight. And then as much as you can have to say, Okay, this is a really close call but it's slightly weighted this way and it makes the most sense to put in that category.

[Ed. note: UPS truck labors up the Mulholland hill ruining a few seconds of audio.]

DC: I do think that everything we say when we talk about these types, is much more true about the type, the aggregated numbers, than it is about the individual place. Because any specific place could be an outlier, and even if it is not an outlier, it may have specific characteristics that make it stand out, it's got bit more of this, and a bit more of that than you think. But we will be crunching the numbers. The census data that we really need won't become available until this fall.



HD: So what is it that you really need?

DC: We need everything at the county level. Even the stuff that's coming out now at the county level--when you get beyond just the raw population figures--it's not real. It's analysis done by other folks. We just did a piece for the Atlantic Monthly in the April issue that is about median family incomes in 1980 and 2010 by county. The 1980 numbers are real, they're based on the 1980 census. The 2010 numbers are based on estimates and analyses of a firm, GeoLytics, that does the numbers. They don't have the 2010 income analysis done by county yet. It's not out yet.

HD: So you'll have to wait until the real numbers come out. So the population stuff that we're basing re-districting on that's real, though, right? [laugh]

DC: Yes, that's real. The numbers trickle out, so the first thing that comes out is standard one, the headcount. Bang, that comes out. The other stuff, later.

HD: So you have time to gather yourself to do this undertaking. All right, so are you anticipating that when you throw up, say the Patchwork Nation map from the book and put it against the new analysis, are you anticipating that there will be a lot of flips [counties that change classification]?



DC: There will be some flips, we are not anticipating too many. The numbers in the book are based on--the census does this thing called called the American Communities Survey. It is essentially a stripped-down census, done just basically on a statistically significant samples of counties that we use to calculate and update everything. When we originally did this--we started in 2008--we used 2006 numbers. And by the time we got the book, we had the 2008 numbers, those were all estimates.

How much will change between then? It could change a bit, just because of the peculiarities of when the census was taken this time--because it was taken in the middle of a very deep trough in a recession, one of the deepest parts in the recession. So the income levels will be low--I think they will be very low. If you look at the census data on median family incomes for 2009, they are based on a five-year sample. So you say, Well, those numbers must be better than the estimates that we got, because we got the estimates from GeoLytics based on 2010. But they're not. Because the 2009 sample is based on a five-year estimate, that includes 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Those numbers aren't real, because 2005, 2006, 2007, and arguably most of 2008, the economy was really humming. So it's using those numbers to figure out 2010 numbers. So do I think there will be some changes in 2010, yeah, ...

HD: ... so the point is, though, that you didn't reach all the way back to 2000 census data.

DC: Oh god, no.

HD: So we're not looking at the potential of a decade's worth of changes reflected in a new analysis.

DC: No. But we could see that some of those ACS numbers--because even though they are done on a statistically sigificant sample, but they may not be accurate. So my guess is what you may see is that the number of counties we have labeled as "Immigration Nation" I think will grow. I think we will gain some in the Midwest, and in the northern Midwest. I think that we are not there, yet but I think if we are still doing this 10 years from now, I think the "Monied Burbs," I have a feeling, will be split. It will no longer be just one category, I think it will be category of super-wealthy, upper-middle-class places and other places that kind of fell behind.

HD: As you discuss in the introduction to the book--I don't remember whether it's called an introduction or whether it's the first chapter--but in any case at the beginning, ...

[Ed. note: Teeter totter begins to issue forth groaning and the HD and DC moderate their teetering to accomodate it.]

... the idea was to get beyond red-states-and-blue-states thinking, and change the way we in the media think about geography and politics. Have you seen any evidence that that in the media people are starting to try to take specifically this idea seriously, or at least something other than straight up blue-states, red-states?



DC: I think that one sign we are making headway is that as 2012 elections are approaching there are a lot of people we are going to partner with. So I think our idea of breaking down the country will seep into a lot of the public media, provided public media still here in three weeks,...

HD: ... wow! ...

DC: ... if funding doesn't get cut! We will be definitely be doing some stuff with the News Hour, the [Patchwork approach] will be a part of that. We are also talking about doing something with all the stations that work with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Because the map we have created, now you can now just look at a region or just look at a metro area. So that is one way that it is seeping in--we're partnering with other stations, too.

Beyond that, other signs, kind of like inklings--like for some reason, the New York Times has done two stories on Sioux Center, Iowa, which makes no sense to me, but they are a community that I picked for this book. And all of a sudden in the last two weeks there have been two stories, I guess maybe in the last three weeks now, but two stories in the New York Times on Sioux Center, Iowa, which I don't know what that is about. And the New York Times would never tell me.

HD: They wouldn't say Dante, it's your book, dude. It led us there!

DC: [laugh] There are some things, though, the piece that we had in the The Atlantic in April, that was The Atlantic contacting me, and saying, We really like what you've done and would like to do it really big piece in the magazine, so we are making headway slowly. But it's an uphill fight. Getting the media to get past what it has come to accept as the standard breakdown is very difficult.

HD: That is the way you cover elections. You throw up a map on the screen with red and blue states, because it's red white and blue, man, it's America. [laugh]



DC: [laugh] Exactly. I think particularly in this election we're going to find out that the red-blue map, especially if you want to understand what is happening with the Republican primary, the red-blue map not help you. Because the Republican Party has never been like this before, not in the last 30 or 40 years, where it has been so segmented. And it's really not clear what direction it's going to go in. The various constituencies within the GOP are going to have individual candidates. And those constituencies align, not perfect, but fairly well, with some of the things we have broken down.

There are certain constituencies that are particularly enamored of Mitt Romney. There will be Republicans constituencies that are particularly enamored of Mike Huckabee if he runs, of Sarah Palin, of Michele Bachmann, maybe Newt Gingrich or maybe not. Or Tim Pawlenty. We will see that. And I think that is going to help our cause, in terms of spreading this idea among the media. In terms of just what I do, I think it's just going to be really exciting to watch.

HD: So you have been in town, you have actually been working if you've been talking to people. I'm just curious to know if you have heard the train analogy as applied to Ann Arbor and Michigan?

DC: You mean pulling the state?



HD: Well, actually it's not that optimistic. When you were here last time--actually it wasn't the last time, but it was a couple years ago--the metaphor that people around here apparently adopted was Ann Arbor as the life buoy, the life preserver, of the state. And now there's a train metaphor. It's not that Ann Arbor is pulling the train, but rather the train of Michigan is going over the cliff and thank god Ann Arbor is the caboose.

DC: [laugh]

HD: When you think about that, when I heard this the first time at a public meeting, I thought I wanted to point out that you know the caboose is attached to the train.

DC: Yeah it is attached. That's not a very sunny view.

HD: I think something like Ann Arbor pulling the train would be a better analogy. Maybe the train's headed over the cliff, but we're an engine on the other end trying to pull it back up. Not a caboose that is just along for the ride.

DC: I agree, I agree.

HD: So I think the train metaphor needs a little tweaking.

DC: I agree. I think Michigan went off the cliff, I actually think if anything ...

HD: ... we are in free fall??

DC: I think if we go back a little bit, I think you went off the cliff, you ended up on the bottom, it was still somewhat functional though and you're slowly trying to climb back up again. And, if you ask me, I think it bottomed out maybe the middle of last year, right? It does seem like things things are a little bit better. I honestly think that, obviously they're little better just in terms of the unemployment rate, slightly better.

I also think that some of the stuff you're going to see here is, first of all Washtenaw County is going to be okay. I really do think that Washtenaw County and the University of Michigan will be fine. And the money they pull it is just astonishing. It's obscene, god bless them. They manage to rake in a lot of grant money. And it keeps this place afloat. And I think they finally--I shouldn't say finally--I think they've gotten the right idea about what it means in terms of helping to rebuild the economy of southeast Michigan. It's a decades-long process.

HD: When you say, "they" you're talking about the University Michigan and its role in rebuilding the economy of southeast Michigan?



DC: I think they are accepting that they have an important role to play in that. I think the thing they did when they bought the campus of Pfizer, I think that was a very important step. I know some people here are weird about that. Why did they get it? That means we can't tax the land! In most places in America, when a campus like that where the company just leaves town, it's just empty. For a very long time. Nobody is going to come in and buy it. It's not not like you can say, Well, somebody will just come and take over the plant. It's a research complex.

HD: Right. It's not like Pfizer's competitor is now going to come in and say, Oh, we can take this over now, and get all this equipment at a steal.



DC: Exactly. I think the future of where this economy is going over the next 15 years, or maybe even 20 years, is where we're going to be in a process of retooling and kind of re-figuring out what we are doing. And in that environment, where it's a place with a research university, it has a huge leg up on everybody else.

I think you're also in a really unique position in Washtenaw County and in Ann Arbor to watch what is going to happen in Detroit. Because I think the most interesting parts of what is going happen in Detroit are going to happen in the next decade. The analogy that I hear the most often about Detroit--and I think it's pretty good--is that Detroit is like Berlin at the end of World War II, which it's just a wreck, it's a bombed-out shell. What do we do with it and what happens when you do?...

HD: ... you divide its into three sectors and build a wall down the middle.

DC: [laugh] Well, besides that. It's a place where all sorts of stuff just gets tried. You just go in and you say we'll try this, or we'll try that. And it reinvents itself, because it has no choice. This idea that, Will Detroit just disappear? It's 700,000 people! Maybe some people are sad to hear this, but they're not going to disappear. Maybe some people are going away, but it's not going to just disappear. 700,000 people is a lot of people. Even if it is just a half million, that's still huge, it's a big behemoth.

What will Detroit do? That is the question. I think over the next decade there can be a lot of crazy experiments in Detroit. Some of them will work and some won't. In terms of watching it can be fascinating.



HD: I wonder what you think about the idea that Ann Arbor actually could, not just watch, but have an active role to play here in influencing what happens in Detroit. So one of the city council candidates [John Floyd] who ran last time, unsuccessfully, essentially ran against the idea that Ann Arbor should try to be any kind of an economic and population center for the region. It was more or less kind of an anti-growth platform. And he pointed to Detroit as being a logical economic and population center of the region of southeast Michigan. And it needs to become that because that's what people are craving. And he would contend that ...

DC: ... there is no baseball team here?

HD: ... now, now...

DC: ... was that the point? And no football team, well at least the professional football team.

HD: [laugh.] I think his point is that there is a such a psychological need for people to have a major population and economic center that is available for whatever opportunities a big city presents. And his contention is that Ann Arbor cannot be that. Because for one thing the streets are simply not laid out in a way that could accommodate that kind of population density. So my challenge to that position essentially would be to say: Okay, what do you do in Ann Arbor here that could fuel that vision of Detroit--the recovery of Detroit as a population and economic and dynamic center of the Southeast Michigan region question. So, if Ann Arbor doesn't grow then what could Ann Arbor do? One possible response would be along the lines of thinking about what the corridor is like between Detroit and Ann Arbor.

DC: Right, that's a big part of it.

HD: If you focus on turning your eyes eastward constantly, instead of just trying to grow Ann Arbor, you grow the connection eastward, you focus on growing that connection, not just growing.

So I'm curious to get your reaction to the whole idea the notion of a role for Ann Arbor in the recovery of Detroit.

DC: Right. Well, I think Ann Arbor actually has a big role to play in the recovery of Detroit. That's an interesting way of putting it. You know he's right, there's never going to be a Renaissance Center--not that he'd want one--in downtown Ann Arbor, he's right. But ... Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan are going to continue to be, in my opinion, just if you look at the way things are going, they'll continue to be powerful economically. I know that government spending is going to be cut, but money is still going to come here. And you're going to produce a lot of industries here, and it would make sense for some of them to spin off and the nearest place for them to go would be to go next-door to go to Detroit.

This is what I think is going to happen: It's not going to be that Ann Arbor's just going to grow and grow and get really big and Detroit is to get smaller and smaller and smaller and all the people to move out here. Ann Arbor is going to become a bigger and bigger economic force and eventually that will rub off on Detroit. And I think in the past--and when I talk about the past, I mean you go back to even the 80s--Ann Arbor was a nice little town. Detroit is still going to be the economic driver of the state of Michigan. But it needs help, and it's not like Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are in Grand Rapids--they are next-door. And as Ann Arbor works at the things that it is good at--technology, and healthcare, obviously--when it comes to technology and high-tech jobs, those are things that Detroit needs to grow in.

It will spin off and it will help Detroit, but the idea that all that will happen, but Ann Arbor won't change at all?? Ann Arbor will change as part of that, but it won't become Detroit. If Ann Arbor is successful at helping Detroit become what it can become, Ann Arbor will change, too. People who don't think it's been a change, Ann Arbor has changed since 1980. It has. I know people here don't want to hear that, but it has changed. It is not the same city as it was back then. I mean politically, the student body has changed, it's a different place. And it's going to be a different place 10 years now. College towns are bubbles--they are. But they aren't completely insular, they don't completely ignore the world outside of them.

HD: Well listen, before we climb off the teeter totter, I just want to read this into the record from the book, I think I bookmarked it, this is page 157: "When the economy dips, it's not just people who are hurting; it's places that are hurting. And not all of them hurt in the same way. It's far more complicated than urban and rural or black and white. If you lose your job in a relatively stable community, another probably won't be hard to find. If you lose it in a places that's ... teetering, you're likely looking at more time out of work."

DC: [laugh]

HD: So thanks for that.

DC: Well, it's a little nod to the teeter totter, of course.

HD: Yes, I'm sure that you are thinking of that as you wrote that part of the book.

DC: It was in my head as I typed that, absolutely.

HD: So is there anything you wanted to say and make sure you got on the record while on the totter before we dismount?

DC: I don't think so. I do wonder when Brady Hoke will walk on water and raise the dead. I'm curious to see that.

HD: Well, he'll need to do that. That is the expectation. All right, well, listen thanks a bunch.