Who Are You Calling a Hick?

Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker magazine writer, used to say that most cities not located on either coast suffered from "hickophobia," which was not the fear of hicks but the fear of being thought of as hicks. Imagine, then, the fears of Fargo, North Dakota.
May 2004
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker magazine writer, used to say that most cities not located on either coast suffered from "hickophobia," which was not the fear of hicks but the fear of being thought of as hicks. Imagine, then, the fears of Fargo, North Dakota. Nearly 10 years ago, a movie was made that cast Fargo as the ultimate hicktown, a desolate place where it snowed endlessly, residents considered lutefisk the height of fine dining and dimwit locals said things like, "Yah, you betcha." Worse still, "Fargo" (the movie, not the town) became a big hit. Most towns faced with such ridicule might simply die of embarrassment, but Fargo (the town, not the movie) has produced a surprise ending. "Quietly, subversively," the Los Angeles Times recently reported, "Fargo has gone trendy." There are now half- million-dollar condos downtown, midnight showings of classic movies at the art-deco theater and a martini bar that serves sushi. What accounts for this remarkable turnaround? Two things: a vibrant local economy and a few bold government policies. Fargo is home to Great Plains Software (now a division of Microsoft), unemployment is below 3 percent and the population grew by 22 percent in the 1990s. What it lacked was focus and hipness. The city and state helped provide the focus by exempting downtown improvements from property taxes for the first five years and, incredibly, granting owners and tenants a five- year exemption from state and local income taxes. Result: 65 new projects downtown in the last three years, from condos and a stunningly restored hotel to new stores and offices. Now, the mayor is thinking about marketing his city to tourists, although he admits that won't be easy, thanks to that darned movie. "People think we're up here on the bleak plains, snowed in eight months of the year," the mayor said. "I tell them the movie was not a documentary."


Why has Boston--home to John Adams, John Kennedy and the presumptive 2004 Democratic Party nominee for president, John Kerry--never before hosted a major party's political convention? To be sure, lack of suitable facilities had something to do with it. But we've found a better explanation: Until now, no political party had the stomach to face the Boston city council. The council, which has no official role in the preparations, recently hauled in organizers of this summer's national gathering of Democrats for a five-hour hearing. "As the city's mothers and fathers," one council member intoned, "we must have a say in terms of what happens in this city." So what did they want to know? One was deeply interested in the environmental practices of the convention and called in a group who advocated the use of non-toxic cleaners and the composting of leftover food. Another council member was microscopically interested in minority hiring and contracting procedures. A party official pointed out that half the Democratic National Committee staff is made up of ethnic minorities, as are more than a third of the staff assigned to the Boston convention. No matter, the council member said. Could the party break down its list of minority contractors by specific ethnicity? And what about the percent of profits going to each group? This was a bit much even by Boston city council standards. "These people are busy," another member said of the grilling of convention planners. "To have them sitting there for five hours when they could be back in offices working seems to be counterproductive.... Things like this hearing make the entire council look bad." And almost certainly ensures that it will be a long, long time before a political convention returns.


It's hard to find a serious political scientist who thinks voter initiatives, such as those held in California or Washington State, are a good idea. Biggest complaint: They ask voters to make complex policy decisions with a limited amount of information, much of which is distorted by angry political mailings and scare-mongering commercials. The result is a long list of disastrous public policies made at the ballot box, starting with California's Proposition 13, which decimated the property tax in 1978. But now the voters of Miami Beach, Florida, have enacted the ultimate ballot-box disaster: They've decided that any change in height or density of an apartment building, condo development or commercial building in the city must first be approved by the voters. That's right: Commercial and major residential rezonings will now be decided at the polls. Surely, the city's elected officials fought this extreme infringement of their powers, right? Wrong. The mayor actually campaigned for the referendum. "This is a historic vote," David Dermer said. "I think this is a major victory for people all throughout the state who are concerned about overdevelopment in their communities." Well, at least this means that average citizens will become more knowledgeable about land use, as neighbors talk to neighbors about issues like density, setbacks and mixed uses of land, right? Don't bet on it. Only 11 percent of Miami Beach's voters participated in the referendum that gave citizens the power to approve or deny rezonings.