ritualCoffee roasting at San Francisco’s Ritual: the future of manufacturing? Photo: Scott Beale of Liquid SquidI wanted to love Allison Arieff’s New York Times opinionator piece on how “The Future of Manufacturing Is Local.” It presents a vision of a world I want to live in: cities revitalized by small, artisanal manufacturing; a revival and revaluing of skilled labor; an upswing in regional identity based on people making cool stuff. In short, robust urban economies bristling with small businesses spawning new small businesses, as described by the great Jane Jacobs in the immortal “Efficient Manchester and Inefficient Birmingham” chapter of her book Economy of Cities.

In an age of lingering high unemployment, record corporate profits, and a financial sector that’s siphoning off massive wealth from the economy while refusing to direct loans to productive enterprises, a revival of grassroots urban manufacturing could be the engine for a new economy that spreads prosperity broadly.

Food, as I’ve noted more than once (see here and here), can be a huge part of such a trend. And indeed, if we listen to Arieff, food-related businesses are pretty much driving the “future of manufacturing.” Her definition of manufacturing evidently includes beer brewing, coffee roasting, bread baking, jam making; something like half her examples are food-related.

So why didn’t I love her piece more? I guess I felt let down by its anecdotal nature — she made no attempt to reckon what sort of impact the manufacturing projects she cites are having on the cities she discusses. To what extent are artisanal coffee roasters and messenger-bag producers creating jobs and keeping money circulating in the urban core and not leaking out to distant shareholders? It’s a difficult question, but I’d like to see Arieff grapple with it. Maybe in a future piece?

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I was also disappointed by the New York City/San Francisco fixation of the story. What about Detroit, where food enterprises are rising up in the wake of the long-term, slow, and calamitous meltdown of auto manufacturing there? What about Cleveland, where they’re experimenting with worker-owned manufacturing models? Of course, no single article can do everything. Arieff has piqued my appetite with this story, and I hope she can dig into it and publish more soon.

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