One of the few genuine compliments a Springfielder will allow his hometown is that it’s so close to so many other great places: the beach, the mountains, Boston. It is, of course, a backhanded compliment, “Hey, at least when you leave this awful place you can be someplace decent in a hurry”. Truth be told it is one of the great challenges that cities in the northeast face. Boston and New York are close enough that people can choose to go there to get a fix of not just healthy urbanism, but world class urbanism. Add to that the pseudo urbanism of places like West Hartford and the miniature, safe urbanism of places like Provincetown or Northampton and it can be nearly impossible for real mid-size cities like Springfield, Hartford, and Worcester to carve out a share of the market.
As a Springfield guy it’s hard for me to feel sympathy for Worcester. It pretends to be a bigger city than Springfield by sprawling over many more square miles of territory while the metro area it centers has a much smaller total population. For all that it is a healthier community by any measure with a wealthier populace and much lower incidence of violent and property crime. A recent Boston Globe article, however, highlighted Worcester’s difficulties in going from being tipped to become “the next big thing” to actually being a “big thing” and I couldn’t help but think, with apologies to Mexicans: Poor Worcester, so far from God, but so close to Boston.
As I mentioned in a recent blogpost, it’s easy for the media to slant a story and paint nearly any community as either on the up or headed down the toilet. As much as many people I respect, like Chuck Marohn and, apparently, Andrés Duany, may rave about Leigh Gallagher’s “The End of the Suburbs” and as vehemently as she may say that urban revitalization is happening “literally everywhere”, IT’S NOT. To cite an example, as she does, of a couple moving from Westborough, average family income ridiculous, to Cambridge, average home value insane, which I guarantee has been going on for decades and decades, is meaningless. Cambridge has been a healthy urban center for families with kids since I was in high school. To quote from Wikipedia:
“The 1980s brought a wave of high-technology startups, creating software such as Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3, and advanced computers, but many of these companies fell into decline with the fall of the minicomputer and DOS-based systems. However, the city continues to be home to many startups as well as a thriving biotech industry. By the end of the 20th century, Cambridge had one of the most expensive housing markets in the Northeastern United States.
While maintaining much diversity in class, race, and age, it became harder and harder for those who grew up in the city to be able to afford to stay. The end of rent control in 1994 prompted many Cambridge renters to move to housing that was more affordable, in Somerville and other communities. In 2005, a reassessment of residential property values resulted in a disproportionate number of houses owned by non-affluent people jumping in value relative to other houses, with hundreds having their property tax increased by over 100%; this forced many homeowners in Cambridge to move elsewhere.”
In reading and re-reading her book nearly all of her examples come from the usual suspects: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, D.C., Seattle, Portland…Remember that time when rich people didn’t want to live in New York City? Me neither. “It” is happening in all the usual places with all the usual people. It was never the case that people of means couldn’t and wouldn’t choose to live in the great urban places in the United States…and anyone able to buy a home in Westborough is somewhere around the top 5% of wage earners in the United States and Cambridge has been just the type of city that has been healthy because families have wanted to live there FOR DECADES. The real shift will happen when these stories are about Akron, Rochester, and Scranton. I’ve been reading these stories about the rebirth of America’s cities for too long with their authors always pointing to numbers and to data which ended up not showing what they were claiming to show.
It isn’t happening here. There are at least two homes, homes that could be described as near mansions, in my neighborhood right now that any family buying any humble home in any surrounding town could easily afford. They are vacant and have been vacant for months. They are yards away from 5 spectacular museums, a City Beautiful Carnegie Library, a community music school, etc etc etc etc…there is no demand for them, no one wants to buy them. It is not happening here, and here being a place which would be included as part of everywhere, it is not happening everywhere.
I am the furthest thing from a Joel Kotkin fan, I do not wish him or his sprawl ideology well, and I do believe that it is inevitable in the long run that limits on energy and resources will force Americans to re-densify their way of life and to abandon the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean that Americans will do it until they absolutely must. To quote Jeff Speck quoting Winston Churchill: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”