There are times to be a cheerleader. As a teacher, a coach, a parent sometimes your job is to just give others a sense that they can accomplish what they’ve set forth to do. But being all “rah, rah, sis, boom, bah” can have its downside as well. Telling someone that they can “if they just try hard enough” or if they “just believe” sufficiently can be incredibly destructive when they put forth their best effort and feel assured of success and they fail; sometimes utterly and absolutely. Perhaps having a thoroughly optimistic outlook can make achievement more likely, but tempering positivity with the reality that dreams fail, efforts can be in vain, and others can be better prepared for success can create a resilience which helps people optimize their circumstances relative to their goals, abilities, and resources in the long run.
I’m a contrarian. I don’t put any effort into it, it just happens. I hear someone, anyone, make a broad strokes assertion about something and I can’t help but think about all of the possible situations and circumstances where it might be wrong. Sometimes it’s useful, but I’ll admit that often, it isn’t. Even platitudes set me off: Is honesty the best policy, really? I mean, lying all the time has got to be hard, but always telling people what you really think all the time? Good luck with that!
And that brings me around to Rational Urbanism and its raison d’être: living in any one of the uncool urban environments of the United States. I could write a blog where all I did was wax poetic about the interplay of interesting people on the streets, sidewalks, and alleyways of my neighborhood. Who am I kidding? No, I couldn’t. Once in a while it is fun for me to write about a particularly idyllic experience, or express my contentment with a wonderful meal or a particularly uplifting event, but that would become fairly tedious fairly quickly for me and, if I’m not mistaken, for you.
Poverty is not pretty. Whether cause or effect, many people who are poor exhibit pathological behavior which makes living in community with them difficult and frustrating. People from other classes and other cultures value things differently and have both greater and lesser tolerances for things; sound, trash, vulgarity, anger, and personal space to name a few. Lots of things are, to use a word my wife and I throw around here, fraught. In a bizarre way I enjoy it I think. And that’s the point. I live how I do, where I do, for my own reasons. Looking back on my life I’d have to say I prefer walking uphill against the wind, but by myself; one way to be sure to win is to make up the rules to your own game and be the only one playing it.
If you’re reading this then something I write about here; city living, urban design, resilience, must strike a cord. You’re either living it, working with it, or wondering what it would be like to do so. If I have anything to offer it’s my lived experience in a single place that has been flailing about for the better part of four decades trying to deal with what it has meant to go from being a place which was perceived as valuable, and which valued itself, to a community suffering from a sort of collective PTSD.
Other places have fallen further, but very few have fallen from such a high perch having been there for so long. The reason there are so many Springfields in the United States is because people founding town after town after town on the ever expanding frontier wanted to challenge their citizenry to be as strong and as successful as this one. Look in your Merriam-Webster dictionary (published in Springfield) and you’ll see that this Springfield was named after Springfield in England, the home of our founding father William Pynchon, and that all of the other Springfields were named after this one: Home of the River Gods. An inland settlement where energy and innovation created a prosperity nearly unrivaled in a small city in the New World from 1636 through the 19th century. And now we are a hiss and a byword. The newspaper of record was all excited this week because a new poll had a slight majority of the people living here calling it a good place to live. Neat. Half the people who live here think it doesn’t suck! And that’s an improvement!!
There is too much optimism in the back to the city movement just now in my opinion. I spent last night at a get together at the local farm I have an interest in just 7 miles from the Springfield city line. This was a gathering with people ranging in age from twenty-something to sexagenarian. There was talk of homes and farms, of foods and fun, and while I was pleased to hear that 5 separate Springfield restaurants were mentioned for having great food, no one, from Millennials to Baby Boomers gave even a passing mention to living in the city. Springfield “may” be rising a bit on the chart as a place to go to be entertained (and then to leave right away) and that is at the very least, a step in the right direction, but there was no hint that any of these prodded anyone towards a change of lifestyle. In essence, downtown Springfield is just the next new mall.
When people with the means to live more or less anywhere in metros like Springfield view the center city as one of the standard options, that’s when things will have changed. In my estimation that will only happen when it is thrust upon us as a society by circumstances beyond our control. Be that as it may, we are nowhere near that point now in most of the places which have been struggling since the end of World War II. Urban pioneers should know that the coffee shop that opened up across the street just a few months before they bought their condo…will probably close in a few months. The empty building down the street is as likely to become a vacant lot as a mixed use co-operative. Gentrification may be the least of your worries. Be ready for some real struggles. If you’re assuming that Scranton will be the next Brooklyn you’re probably going to be disappointed.
The clarion call of Urban Revival has been heard many times in my 40 years in this place. We turned mills into apartment buildings, made lofts from warehouses, opened restaurants in rusticated storefronts, and opened pop-up retail spaces in vacant a shops decades ago. We even built incrementally. But they didn’t come.
By all means, move here, wherever your “here” is. I have no regrets in that regard. And sure, you can move in hoping you’ll be on the cutting edge of the next big thing. Just know that it might not happen. It is not inevitable in the near term. Be prepared to either make what your place is satisfactory and sufficient, or be prepared to move on in hopes of catching some other next big thing. If your happiness depends on others losing their taste for suburbia, be prepared to be disappointed, but if you can see the outlines of a fulfilling life in what cities like mine provide in the here and now then it can be extremely rewarding and, who knows, maybe next time the great inversion will be on for real!