It doesn’t require so much as reading between the lines to see that one of the primary aims of this website is facilitating gentrification, not just a four letter word, nearly a four letter word squared! Part of the received wisdom of the cognoscenti is that the tourism “industry” is a ridiculous fiction. Attempting to lure to tourists is the final wave of the hand of community which is about to go under for the last time.
My recent visits to New London, Connecticut, and Great Barrington, and Lee, Massachusetts, have demonstrated just how wrong these critics are. Tourism is the key to needed gentrification in places weighed down by economic stagnation and low self esteem.
These three communities are places I have visited before; the two in Massachusetts much more often than the one in Connecticut. My father was born in Lee, and while I was growing up we had family in Great Barrington. Summer trips, whether with my parents or my children, have always involved these communities. They have both been transformed in the last two decades. Great Barrington was never quite as sad as Lee, but having struggled for an identity it started to cater to tourists via junk shops, used book stores, some decorative lighting, brick accents to the sidewalk, and a restaurant or two. A little movie Tri-plex followed, then a beatnik cafe. Now there is everything from top tier retail to a little real estate storefront advertising just how inexpensively one can take one’s family from Manhattan or L.A. and move them to this bucolic paradise that is the Berkshires.
Lee is mostly still at the junk shop phase of this transformation, but the storefronts are immaculate, the decorative street lamps are there, and families promenade up and down what was a dead Main Street. In Lee I overheard two clearly well-to-do moms, kids in tow, discussing the purchase of a new home and the sale of another. These are people who would not have been caught dead in Lee twenty years ago, when Lee was good for leaving and nothing more. The man at the upscale liquor store comments that the old class-based rivalry between Lee and Lenox has diminished, as long time residents see themselves as foils to the new arrivals from New York and California. It turns out making Lee attractive to visitors has made Lee the type of place people visit, and then want to live.
Therein lies the key to using the tourist trade to improve your community. Boston and New York (in the 70’s), Lee, and Great Barrington (in the 80’s) were places many of their residents found to be inadequate. People lived there because they had to. The idea of residents demanding improvements for themselves was incomprehensible mostly because they hoped to someday be non residents. Improvements for idiots stupid enough to find “this dump” worthy of a vacation trip was acceptable because taking advantage of suckers isn’t just the American way, it’s a way out.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the U-Haul rental place: this shit hole became a nice place to live. Turns out locals can also read used books and can occasionally use a night stand for when they set that book aside. Sure, visitors can eat blue cheese burgers at 20 Railroad Street, but so can the guy who lives above the little grocery store…which started as a specialty shop selling overpriced jellies to moronic tourists…but now has peanut butter and bread as well.
See, hang the tourists(literally, if you’d like!), what makes focusing on tourism a good idea is that it makes the business community and politicians focus on the things that make a place a great place to be, instead of being a great place to drive through. The idea of improving my city center for its residents is ridiculous, because everyone knows that we are all savages. Getting some idiot from Greenwich to part with a few bucks at a cafe on Court Square though? “Hey, if he’s stupid enough to bring his family to Springfield…”
New London isn’t much further along than Springfield in making itself a great place to visit, but it has a lot going for it. The architecture is wonderful, and shops are appearing which are designed to cater to the visitors they hope will soon arrive. The vacant buildings on Bank Street are boarded up with plywood which has been painted to match the existing façades, the restaurants are empty at noon, but this place has a look which says “hipster heaven”, and I’m sure that the streets are more crowded on a Saturday night than a Wednesday afternoon. There is no real estate office with tempting photos of nearby houses for sale. They aren’t quite there yet, and the sleepy old man at the tourist booth has no idea why anyone would interrupt his slumber, but the place has a lot to offer. If Springfield doesn’t improve a little in the next ten years, who knows? Maybe I’ll retire to New London. It’s on its way to becoming a great place to visit…I might want to live there.