Six years on it might be easy to lose sight of the original purpose behind the creation of this website: to address topics related to cities that aren’t Superstar cities in ways that don’t just adhere to the narrative of urban pathology, to separate mistaken perspectives from real challenges so as to confront them. I began to question some of what I’ve been writing, wondering if it wasn’t simply becoming too contrary when I realized that it is precisely what I write which is contrary to the received wisdom which is most important.
Websites, blogs, and news coverage of the bookends of American cities, from San Francisco and Boston on one end, to Detroit and Oakland on the other leave out so many communities in the middle, believing they are saying much about a great many places, all the while saying nothing meaningful about most of them.
I have no doubt that from his perch in the Great Northwest this makes perfect sense. If we woke up tomorrow with 20 more square miles of San Francisco, Seattle, or Portland, those blocks would be filled in the blink of an eye with fantastically successful, walkable urbanism and even more Millenials and retiring Baby Boomers would fall all over themselves to be ensconced in the best of North American urban lifestyles.
But here, in western New England, it’s just pure ridiculousness. It’s not just downtown Springfield either. There are a handful of Main Streets in this region with “to die for” urbanism and architecture within a metro area that is in the top half of ALL urban metros in the United States for income and prosperity. They sit in what is arguably the world’s #1 economic corridor and contain housing stock which is second to none. But demand is, at best, somewhat slack. There are “too many cities”. Springfield, Hartford, Worcester, Bridgeport, New Haven, Providence, Portland, to say nothing of the third tier cities like Waterbury, Chicopee, New Britain and dozens of similar places…and that’s just New England!
The blogpost, in the context of refuting a recent suburban triumphalism, is not from a perspective which I dislike, but it’s useless to me. His point is that while only 17 of 53 metro areas have core neighborhoods growing at a faster rate than their suburbs, and that IS down from a high of 25 just a few years ago, it’s up from 7 in prior decades. In other words, Boston, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and the like are still doing well. Maybe I don’t speak for everyone in Akron, Syracuse, Youngstown, Gary, and Scranton, but…who the hell cares?! That is supposed to mean something HERE?
THESE PLACES are a hard sell. Things could turn around, things can improve, but the evidence for just HOW difficult this path is going to be can be gleaned from our biggest supporters. Take Gracen “A New Place for Me” Johnson and her poetic pieces about the beauty of Fredericton; many spectacular elegies to the mesmeric quaintness of a struggling little maritime city. She lives in Toronto now. I don’t fault her for that, but, in truth, it makes it WORSE, not better, that she instructs us all on how wonderful a place Fredericton is for years, and tells us how lucky anyone would be to be linked to that place. And then leaves.
“I can’t believe she broke up with you. You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re so thoughtful and caring. Any girl would be lucky to have you as a boyfriend.”
“You wanna hang out?”
“Ummmm. I think we’re better off as friends.”
This week Rachel Quednau of Strongtowns wrote an excellent, heartfelt piece about how people in places like Akron should struggle against negativity and pessimism; avoiding the “psychology of decline”! Last I heard she’s moving to…Rochester? Cleveland? St. Louis? Detroit?
It’s like Ike: “Watch out for that military-industrial complex.”
Good call. Hey, wait, weren’t you a four star general before you became President? Seems like the kinda guy who could have DONE SOMETHING about the problem! Nope.
“Yeah, ummm, the house is a little bit on fire but I’m gonna take my fire truck and head down to Florida for Spring Break. Good luck with that though.”
When I worked with my local civic association I called it the “no job is too difficult and unrewarding…for YOU to do.”
“Have fun storming the castle!”
“I’m behind you all the way. Way behind you. At a really safe distance.”
This piece was just published about my very neighborhood. Note the blue dot; it shows you exactly where I sit as I write this post.
Read it. It’s pretty accurate. I’ve published entire photo essays on the bad behavior I can see from the very widows I am looking out as I write this piece. It’s a tough ask to expect a young person, a young couple, a young family, to commit to one of those places “rich in potential” but in no way guaranteed to succeed and yet, that is precisely what is needed for these places to succeed.
We have the sidewalks, the parks, the museums, the bars, the restaurants, the colleges, the libraries, the transit, and, an incredible variety of EXTREMELY affordable housing, but the people who know this the most thoroughly STILL end up drawn to the certainty of the Superstar Cities. Everybody’s got a reason why YOU should stay, but THEY are gonna need to go. That’s the issue. That’s the problem. That’s the whole god damned point. Thanks for the “thoughts and prayers”, but we could use some actual help. The psychology of decline exists because those of us who have spent decades working to improve these places keep getting ditched by people who have “other priorities”. Thanks, Dick. Around here the chirping from the sidelines is loudest from the people whose abandonment OF the city is what has done the absolute most to harm the city.
Thank you, thank you very much for your concern, but you want to maybe grab an oar there, buddy?
There are some game changers. Things are happening. I can see a chance for a real turnaround here, but that doesn’t come from the opening of a new coffee shop, or a neighbor putting in a granny flat, it comes from enormous shifts in connectivity and livability here due directly to governmental actions at the state level spurred on by trends that are as much out of our control as the ones which have caused this place to struggle for the last half century. So why even try? This is why.