Archives for the month of: May, 2009

Imagine for a moment an African-American father being asked by his white step-daughter to attend a rap concert with her. That is the very scenario I faced recently.

Truth be told, I had been to only one concert before in my whole life, and it was not hip-hop music. Those two words “rap concert” conjured stereotypical visions of wall-to-wall black folks, gangs, drugs, and violence. And I could not deny the fact that at age 45, I would likely hold the dubious honor of being the concert’s oldest attendee.

I decided to go anyway. “Sure, I’ll go,” I told my step-daughter, feeling unsettled in my soul but hearing timidness in my voice.

May 4th was my day of reckoning — the much-anticipated Techn9ne concert that my step-daughter asked me to attend in Orangevale, California, a suburb of Sacramento. My first epiphany of the evening came as she and I stood in the long line that snaked around the music venue. It suddenly occurred to me that the majority of the concert goers were white. What’s going on here? I thought. Have I somehow been suckered into attending a county music performance instead?

After being carded at the front door by an amused security guard, I found myself surrounded by a sea of energized people ready for the concert to begin. The first act took the stage at 8:30 p.m., followed by a set from a second band. Tech N9ne, the main event, began at 10:00. A sea of young adults clad in skinny jeans flailed their arms and gyrated to the pulsating music reverberating throughout the concert hall. I stood rooted to the floor simultaneously mesmerized, intrigued and a bit frightened.

What most fascinated me about the crowd was the their skillfulness in sending text messages, photos, videos and even Twitter updates while dancing to the beat of the music. At one point my step-daughter called a friend who lives 100 miles away in Chico, California, and held up her phone so that her friend could listen in.

To me, this concert reinforced that rap music, like it or not, is one of the most powerful forces appealing to young, disaffected segments of our urban population. Clearly the future of our more urbanized areas will rest largely on how we as a nation acknowledge the collective influence of this extreme form of creativity

While rap concerts can create trouble for some communities, this young adult demographic adds dramatically to the economic bottom line by purchasing hats, t-shirts, music downloads, stereo systems and the like. Like our parents before us, we in the baby-boomer generation might not understand or like this generation’s music, but their dollars are a quiet boost to our sagging economy.

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As the son of a university administrator, there will always be a special place in my heart for college towns. Whenever I’m traveling near a campus, I make time to hang out with the university crowd so I can take in the sights, sounds and atmosphere that are a unique part of a collegiate environment.

Students and faculty bring to these areas a distinctive sense of intellectual vibrancy, which serves as a catalyst for learning and innovation. They also play a vital role in the economic fortunes of a city or region, providing many college towns with a stable financial base even during recessionary times.

Iowa City, Iowa (Pop 67,000), and Merced, California (Pop 80,000), offer an interesting contrast on how college towns are faring amid one of the worst economic downturns in our nation’s history.

Iowa City is located in the central part of the “Hawkeye State” and is home to the University of Iowa. Several years ago I attended a rain-soaked Ohio State vs. University of Iowa football game at Iowa City’s legendary Kinnick Stadium. What struck me about the area was its semi-rural yet eclectic feel. The downtown area in particular offered a fascinating blend of coffee houses, bohemian types and the nightlife crowd that is a staple at many Big Ten universities. The city also has one the highest percentages of adult populations holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. In terms of business vitality, Forbes magazine has named Iowa City one of the best small metro areas for doing business in the U.S.

The university itself boasts a stellar reputation in teaching and research, in addition to boasting one of the top academic medical centers in the nation — the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Iowa City holds another special distinction, one that is particularly remarkable during a time when many cities are struggling to stem the financial bleeding associated with a down economy. According to March 2009 figures released by the U.S. Department of Labor, Iowa City placed among ten other cities with the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Even more impressive is that two other university cities, Ames and Cedar Rapids/Waterloo, also placed in the top ten, making Iowa the only state to hold the dubious honor of having three cities in the aforementioned top ten.

Now let’s look west to the recently minted college town of Merced, located in what is affectionately known as the Central Valley of California. Nestled in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, Merced historically has struggled from high rates of unemployment and poverty, largely connected to its lack of economic diversification. In 2005, the University of California at Merced opened, making it the first research university built in the U.S. in the 21st century. With this new campus came optimism for an area that has struggled mightily to boost its prosperity and economic outlook.

Unfortunately, Merced and its surrounding areas have fallen victim to a speculative property debacle, spurred by the anticipated fortunes of U.C. Merced. This modern-day gold rush instead led to high foreclosure rates and rapidly declining property values. As a result, Merced’s unemployment rate soared to 20.4%, placing it among the top five jobless cities in the nation.

Hopes remain high, though, that U.C. Merced will ultimately deliver a much-needed jolt to the area — pumping in millions of dollars to the local economy in support of a long-term sustainable economy. This May, First Lady Michelle Obama will give the commencement speech at U.C. Merced, which appears to be just what the doctor ordered in terms of boosting its college-town aspirations.

But will it be enough to cure the city’s chronic past? Only time will tell whether Merced will join Iowa City among the cities recognized for their low unemployment, robust economy and higher education presence. Hopefully, this Central Valley city will get a new chapter in its history book.