I’m not against using numbers in analysis as anyone who has read my blog for long enough will know. There are times though when numbers draw out more questions than they resolve. Take the case of two New England cities: One having lost nearly 30% of its population since the mid XX Century and seeing murders increase 20% since 2015; the other suffering a drop in population of only half that of the other, and nearly half of that recovered since 1980, and a drop in homicides of 33% since 2015. The two cities are Boston and Springfield, with the latter comparing favorably.
Obviously I’m intentionally cherry picking the data here. The increase in homicides in Boston and the dip in Springfield has made their homicide rates more or less identical and, while Boston’s population dropped by almost a quarter of a million people between 1950 and 1980 it has since recovered over 100,000 people. Springfield lost around 25,000 people and has only slowly recovered 5,000-6,000 people.
In another odd twist of the data, greater Springfield’s population has steadily grown over that entire time period adding anywhere from 1% to 3% of population annually and, it turns out, that the Springfield metro area is still comfortably in the top half of all metros in terms of per capita income. It would be understandable to assume, given the standard view of Springfield as an almost uniquely troubled place, that it would be the center of a dying, impoverished region. It isn’t. While regions in the northeast like New Haven, Hartford, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Utica, Pittsburg, Scranton, and Erie all are estimated to have lost population just since 2010, Springfield plugs along at the usual +1.5%.
With 3 traditional residential universities, a community college, and a handful of other institutions of higher learning both in and around the city, 3 hospitals, major tourist attractions like 6 Flags and the Basketball Hall of Fame, Mass Mutual Insurance, and a number of other corporations and manufacturers located in and around the city, the ongoing MGM project, loads of high quality housing at rock bottom prices, and a supposed burst of interest in the urban, walkable, lifestyle…why aren’t there more indicator species of revival? Springfield has 1, that’s one, o n e, one “craft brewer”, White Lion, and, oh, they don’t actually brew their beer here AND they don’t have any brick and mortar presence in the city. Apart from selling their beer at Springfield events I don’t see how they’re any more a Springfield enterprise than Budweiser. But that said, where are the other local craft breweries at a time when suburban towns in Ohio probably average 6 craft breweries each!?
If you didn’t look at the numbers you’d assume it was a place just struggling to survive, hanging on to its last family, its last employer, its last institution by its fingernails. It isn’t. People come to the region, get good jobs, live their lives, raise their families and never think twice about the city at the center of it in a way that most other cities don’t seem to experience. I’ve written entire posts about the negative response entertainers get if they offer up even the most banal platitude about the city.
I see hundreds of millions of public and private dollars earmarked to improve a very concentrated area from the South End into the downtown with, still, dozens of storefronts left completely empty and lot after build-able lot left to fill up with tumble weeds and shattered expectations. Perhaps there are just too many other more attractive places and even a few with lower price point for entry. The outsider test is the toughest one to pass; with all of the other choices available, even if you just count the northeast, is this the most attractive place to set down roots, to raise a family, to risk your money? There are a few people saying yes, many of whom have roots here already and, unfortunately bring with them a suburban mentality. We need a risk taking grass roots level entrepreneurial class of people who understand how cities work and who, most importantly, aren’t trying to recreate “the successes” of East Longmeadow and Memorial Avenue in Chicopee in downtown Springfield.
The biggest problem of course is that doing things “wrong” from my perspective is what has worked for the past 60 years, and doing things right has brought at best mediocre results. Perusing some old photos of the city taken by the WPA 80+ years ago awakened me to the realization that my block has been in decline for a century. Even when this city was among the wealthiest in America the brownstone townhouses of the 1860’s and 1870’s were falling apart, becoming boarding houses, and being by-passed for the first street car and auto centered neighborhoods. Up has been down and down has been up for quite a while. A reversal in attitude toward such places as these may require a shock which in and of itself may very well do even the places for which it portends a brighter future much more harm than good.