Creating Research Triangle Park– A Review of “Brain Magnet”

Cummings, Alex Sayf. Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Andrew Hedden

A generation of labor historians famously asked: “Why was there no socialism in the United States?” Employing new forms of social history and foregrounding the country’s long history of class conflict and inequality, these historians explored the development of working-class communities in the United States to explain why the country had not produced formal labor politics of the size or scale of other countries around the world.[1] Recently, scholars working in the burgeoning History of Capitalism field have used the same tools of social history to ask the inverse: “Why was capitalism so prevalent in the United States?” Turning to the worlds of business and ruling elites, these historians challenge understandings of economic change as the natural outcome of market forces or technological development by charting how capitalism in the United States is the result of intentional policy, politics, and planning.

Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy by Alex Sayf Cummings is the tenth and most recent title in Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism, a book series dedicated to advancing the field. The book chronicles the rise of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park (RTP), the largest research park in the United States, to explain how a widely adopted blueprint of postindustrial urban development emerged out of one of the country’s poorest states. Mining the papers of politicians, academics, and industrialists, and drawing from local historians, Cummings shows how RTP’s boosters leveraged North Carolina’s universities and colleges to recruit white collar professionals and their companies to the Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham area beginning in the 1950s. Analyzing everything from zoning regulations and tax codes to the very architecture of RTP’s buildings, Cummings argues that the effort required the privileging of a specific class of knowledge worker whose labor was intentionally separated in space and place from processes of manufacturing and production. By creating a regional economy centered on high-wage, white collar industries, RTP innovated the idea of the “creative class” as a foundation for urban revitalization.[2] Highlighting the region’s ongoing struggles over segregation, gentrification, and immigration, Cummings nonetheless concludes that the Park’s importation of white-collar industries did little to combat North Carolina’s longstanding history of racism and poverty.

One vertex in the Research Triangle is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ildar Sagdejev (Specious), Old Well at UNC-CH, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

A stellar contribution to multiple historical subfields, Brain Magnet exemplifies the best of the History of Capitalism. Demystifying the rhetoric of boosters and underscoring the uneven outcomes of postindustrial capitalism, the book adds to the growing urban history literature on the high tech economy, which moves beyond the field’s traditional focus on downtown cores to investigate the multi-nodal sprawl of prosperous late twentieth-century metropolises.[3] Brain Magnet also bolsters work on the Sunbelt that has shown how local actors leveraged the federal government to transform the South into a generator of immense wealth while sustaining the region’s basic economic divides.[4] The book applies this narrative towards labor history by showing how the making of the late twentieth-century U.S. middle class itself was an intentional project of elites. This was class formation from above—in Cumming’s words, “social engineering at its gentlest and most genteel”—a stark contrast to the class formation from below so often chronicled by traditional labor historians.[5]

As a site-specific study, Brain Magnet ultimately raises questions about scale. Pondering RTP’s success, Cummings writes, “It was almost as if North Carolina’s leaders in academia, business, and politics had made the idea a reality by sheer force of will.” If local boosters willfully designed RTP’s divided metropolis, as Cummings convincingly demonstrates, to what extent were these boosters enabled, empowered, or encouraged by decisions made at the level of the federal government or the global economy? For example, to what extent did they depend upon the global reaches of the U.S. empire, which provided the multinational corporate infrastructure and overseas markets that ultimately made the ideas of RTP’s knowledge workers into profitable commodities? At what scale was power most operative in late 20th century capitalism—locally, regionally, nationally, or globally? The answer, as far as urban economic development is concerned, surely involves a combination of multiple scales. Scholars will find a superb guide to the local and regional scales in Brain Magnet.


Andrew Hedden is Associate Director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and a PhD candidate in History at the University of Washington. His dissertation-in-progress, “Empire of Tomorrow: Seattle the Making of Global Capitalism, 1962-1983,” explores connections between urban development and changes in the global power of the United States in the 1970s.

Featured image (at top): Research Triangle Park Headquarters, 2008, Ildar Sagdejev (Specious), Wikimedia Commons.

[1] A recent frank and pointed assessment of this scholarship is Jefferson Cowie, “Red History, Blue Mood: Labor History and Solidarity in an Age of Fragmentation,” Labor 16, no. 4 (December 1, 2019): 35–47, https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-7790246.

[2] The “creative class” was celebrated most famously in a book by urbanist Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002).

[3] See, for example, Lily Geismer’s account of Massachusetts’ Route 128, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Tracey Neumann’s comparative account of economic development schemes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Hamilton, Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); and Margaret O’Mara’s work on Silicon Valley, including Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) and The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (New York: Penguin Press, 2019).

[4] See Bruce J Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

[5] For a discussion of class formation in the context of recent political debates on the American Left regarding the nature of “the professional-managerial class,” see Gabriel Winant, “Professional-Managerial Chasm,” N+1 (blog), October 10, 2019, https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/professional-managerial-chasm/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.