So here’s the comment that got this brain train rollin’:
September 16, 2019 at 5:35 pm
I’ve been reading the blog for about a year now; I found it somehow, not totally sure, but I am glad I did. I just moved (begrudgingly) to Windsor CT as my girlfriend works in Hartford and I in Springfield still. Previously I was on Mattoon for a year, before that in East Forest Park, and originally in Sixteen Acres when I first moved to Springfield just over 4 years ago for graduate school. Springfield became my home and I loved it, especially my time on Mattoon.
Anyway, I’ve noticed you accurately refer to this part of New England in regional terms. That is, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield make up a densely populated region rather than 3 separate cities and their own suburbs. I’m curious, then, as to your thoughts on annexation, what it would mean to each independent city, and to the region as a whole. It seems to me that if Hartford incorporated West Hartford, East Hartford, and possibly some other bordering towns (Bloomfield, Windsor, Newington, Glastonbury, Wethersfield) it would reach more than 300,000 people within its city lines, with considerably more corporations considered to be headquartered in Hartford (i.e. Cigna, Colt Firearms, Pratt & Whitney) and therefore offering massive tax dollars to the region. It would also now contribute enormous tax dollars of the high earners (who benefit from being next to Hartford proper) in West Hartford, Glastonbury, etc. to Hartford’s base, while also consolidating the amount of town costs (each has their own fire dept & chief, police, etc.).
I mean, for Hartford to annex this handful of towns would probably put its geographic size close to that of Atlanta (134 sq miles, ~500,000 population). To put it further, Hartford County is about 750 sq miles with close to a million people in it. By comparison Allegheny is about the same geographic size and 1.2 million citizens, with Pittsburgh as its county seat. The narratives on Pittsburgh and Atlanta are much different than Hartford-Springfield-New Haven, I think mostly due to the nature of the cities land base. Because they are larger, they have more residential areas and neighborhoods, which stabilizes the perceived “crime” rate, and their city services are condensed coherently with opportunity to create public projects with the regions interests in mind. Perhaps that’s another reason they get more attention from journalists and we don’t. We are completely misrepresented as a region.
My point is this: doesn’t it seem that this region, with cities technically using a small amount of space in comparison to the region, is structured so that the cities are destined to fail? With each suburb competing against the city, pulling tax dollars (both corporate and income) away from the traditional areas of business, the city proper is left with nothing, and is then blamed for its problems. Hartford is tiny, only about 18 sq miles. Springfield is a bit bigger (33 sq miles) with about 30K more residents. New Haven is in the middle, about 20 sq miles and about as dense as Hartford.
Why are we not talking about regional cooperation? It seems your calls for regional prosperity are on point, but how can we ever get there if our cities are not major metro areas that benefit from occupying larger space? Nowhere else in the country does this issues really exist (and I recognize that New England towns have their own identity and would likely resist this process).
It seems, from a macro perspective, that merging our regional cities with its suburbs, is the first step to a rational urbanist agenda.
The claims made in this comment are not just accurate, but incredibly insightful from the city side of the discussion. I agree with every word. With so many of the topics that bubble to the surface at Rational Urbanism the fact is that perception is the reality that must be dealt with, and annexation does change the way data is tossed around and the judgements which are made from it about Springfield and about so many other places like it. It puts me in mind of the end of an interview I did on the Strong Towns podcast about my Death Race 2016 feature. At the close of the interview Chuck asked me what I would have the media do differently, and I, haltingly and choppily, gave a response; why was my response so unsatisfactory I wondered afterword?
Because it wasn’t the media I was interested in at all, it was the public which was consuming it whose interpretation I wanted to change.
To confront the question of going metropolitan: actually doing it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell, at least in Springfield, if it were to be attempted overtly with any of our suburban neighbors. Hartford is similarly looked down upon, I think, by the communities surrounding it, and so it is equally a non-starter. Massachusetts already has created the next best thing with a sort of de facto annexation by using what is mostly state income tax revenue to subsidize half of Springfield’s budget.
As I have commented here repeatedly, I find that 100% justifiable as the incomes taxed are nearly all EARNED in Springfield. As I wrote in this essay, the argument that the community where the income earner lives is more productive than the place the earner works is like ascribing the value of a farm to the farmhouse and not the fields that surround it.
There is no doubt that annexation can drive a narrative of a growing, thriving city: look at Columbus, Ohio. In a state of dying cities it is considered perhaps the sole survivor. The fact that most of the growth narrative has been perpetuated by forcing surrounding communities who need access to its water district to join (or die) isn’t mentioned when the lists of America’s Growing Cities are released…and positivity begets positivity; my guess is that some real growth and an actual increase in prosperity has taken place because a good story is the best medicine for what ails most cities.
Going from 35 square miles to well over 200 square miles is a significant part of the real story, but you have to know to look for it. Read the Wikipedia entry on the demographics of Columbus and you’ll only find that the population of the city has skyrocketed at a time when so many other Ohio cities have declined. I talked to people who’ve lived in Columbus who had no idea about the whole annexation thing, they just know that the narrative is “onward and upward!”
As often happens with issues like this, I want to flip the argument, at least a little bit. I’m a true believer in the Strong Towns case for suburbia being screwed in the long run. I want nothing to do with them. Right now we have the most functional places filled disproportionately with the least functional people. To clarify, I would agree with ALL of the arguments that in the case of race, their disfunction is due to a society which has disproportionately created their disfunction, but for this argument that is neither here nor there: the places best suited for human habitation in the region are those which were created before World War II, those are mostly in our urban cores of Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, West Springfield, and Westfield, and those are disproportionately filled with the poor; or in other words those people who have been less successful in our economic system.
These functional places filled mostly with less functional people, by this definition, are surrounded by much, much larger swaths of territory built in an experimental form which has been conclusively demonstrated to be so unproductive as to be unsustainable without siphoning off productivity from productive areas (i.e. The Strong Towns argument). These places are destined to fail. Whether or not they will bring down the productive places around them is the operative question and I think the looser and more fragile the bonds which connect them, the better.
It may happen long after I am laid to rest, but someday the productive places will again be filled with the productive people, and nearly all of the productive non agricultural work will once again occur in those places. A few, a very few currently “unproductive” places at the near periphery of the productive cores will be reworked to join those cores, but the rest will be let loose to become either productive farmland, or to be a sort of banlieue with little in the way of city services.
So if I could I’d jettison a fair chunk of East Forest Park and 16 Acres, I’d encourage Indian Orchard to hook up with the center of Ludlow, and I’d annex what was left of Springfield with Holyoke, Chicopee,the center of West Springfield, and the part South Hadley just across from Holyoke. It would put the population of my New Springfield at around 250,000. It would unify all of the walkable places, it would have the hydropower of the Holyoke dam and the Cobble Mountain Reservoir…along with its water supply, and it would be easily connected by existing rail and bus public transit.
It would unify all of the places that no one wants now anyway; all of the shit-holes. “It” would be the only place with any value in our manmade landscape. It would be this region’s lifeboat. The real question is whether to fill it with life preservers or harpoons.